The origin of Gai Jatra, or the 'Holy Cow Festival', is traced back to the period of King Pratap Malla (1624 to 1674 A.D.) of Kathmandu. To this day, the Newah community of the Kathmandu Valley and other Newah settlements celebrate the festival in memory of the deceased family member.

In Thecho, a Newah settlement of the valley, a typical dance known as Jogi Pyakhan, or the 'Hermit Dance', accompanies the Gai Jatra procession.

A group of 11 barefoot males in exceptional attire exits the narrow entrance of one of the houses on a busy lane of Thecho. One of them is dressed in a yellow wrap and carries a Kalash, or 'sacred water vessel'.

The fake matted and braided dreadlocks on his head and a fake cobra curled around the neck depict him as Lord Shiva.

The remaining men wear caps and shirts which are yellow or maroon coloured.

Clad in a Rudraksha Mala, or 'blueberry prayer beads' around the neck, each of them holds a yellow sheet of paper with lyrical verses printed on them. The lyrics is meant to inform the heavenly god about the name of the deceased person, the day, month and year of the passing and also the names of the entire family members who are left behind.

Some stanzas describe the last wish of the departed to see the family living together.

On the street, the group assembles in a circle with the Shiva look-alike in the centre.

Some hold a Jhyali, a traditional folk percussion instrument, while others the Rudraksha Mala. A few members outside the group play the Khairani, another percussion instrument.

The beating of the Jhyali and Khairani together conveys the message of death to the heavenly god. Slowly the rhythm makes the dancers move in rounds, later turning them into a trance. The audience lines up to shower them with money and rice grains into the cloth pouches. The dancers stop at 11 different places for the act, each of which lasts for 10 to 15 minutes.

The Jogi Pyakhan is believed to have started by a group of Newah enthusiasts called Dapha Khala in Thecho. Jit Govinda Maharjan, Kajee or the 'team leader' of the group, the Nhyecchen Dapha Khala explains, "It is difficult to manage the group these days for lack of finances and the busy schedule of the participants."

So only a couple of dances take to the streets during Gai Jatra these days. The Dapha Khala trains the dancers belonging to its own group or other interested persons of the same locality to prepare for the day at the request of the family. Involvement of young members of the community in the act shows their eagerness to carry the cultural heritage forward.

A version of this article appears in the print on August 24 2021, of The Himalayan Times.