On March 20, 2015, you’ll see much pomp and ceremony being enacted on the Army ground near Tundikhel in the capital, Kathmandu. The seats on the gaily decorated pavilion will be filled with national and international dignitaries, including the head of state and the prime minister, ministers, ambassadors, et al. The iron fence around the grounds will be ringed with hundreds of eager spectators, most of them people from around the outskirts of the Valley, the urban folk being a bit more jaded. They are all there to witness the Army’s cavalry unit put up a display of fine horsemanship, along with demonstrations by the Army’s gymnasts and martial art exponents of judo, karate, and tae kwon do. The Army will also enact a scenario wherein a man is rescued from a building on fire, with the rescuers sliding down a rope from a hovering helicopter. The finale of this festival known as Ghode Jatra (Festival of Horses) will be paratroopers descending down from the sky on billowing parachutes, carrying the national flag.
Pomp and ceremony are assured by the rows of smartly uniformed and dressed dignitaries on the pavilion, the bright uniforms of the Army band and their gleaming instruments, the magnificent horses, and the rousing music. A terrific spectacle is guaranteed by the horses galloping around the field and jumping over numerous hurdles. The sound of their hooves clattering on the hard ground is sure to set heart beats racing. Indeed, the horses are what Ghode Jatra is all about. It’s the clamor that they make that is at the root of the origins of this festival.
The story goes that, once upon a time, there was a demon called Tundi who lived in a pasture that later became known as Tundikhel. Now this was one mean demon, and he was creating fear and havoc among the valley dwellers. Somehow or the other, they eventually succeeded in capturing Tundi, whom they tied up and buried into the ground in Tundikhel. To make doubly sure that he would remain buried, they brought in some horses and made them trample the grounds thoroughly. Every year in Feb/Mar, horses gallop around the nearby Army grounds, and it is believed that the clamor created by the galloping hooves will scare the living daylights out of Tundi so that he doesn’t dare come out of his underground lair.
The participating horses during Ghode Jatra come from a special cavalry unit. Incepted in 1849, and originally known as the Risalla, later, in 1952, it came to be known as the King’s Household Cavalry. This cavalry unit played an especially outstanding role during the 1911-1912 Nepal-Tibet war, earning many accolades, and it often holds centre stage during state ceremonies. An interesting aside to Ghode Jatra is that, a king of Patan, seeing how the Kathmandu inhabitants were so thrilled by the festival, decided to have one in his kingdom, too (those days, the Valley had three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur). And so, on this day, there’s a Ghode Jatra in Patan as well. However, it comes with a twist. The Patan festival involves one horse that’s thoroughly inebriated, as is its rider, and the whole point of the event is for spectators to try their best to frighten the horse into riding around wildly around the locality of Balkumari and see how long the drunk rider can hold on to his saddle.
Another aside to the Ghode Jatra is that, on the day before, Newars of various tols (wards) do a bit of spring cleaning around their localities, and then take out colorful parades of deity idols on chariots; it’s part of a three-day festival called Pahachare. Idols of the deities Bhairav, Bhadrakali, Lumadi, and Kankeshwari are carried on palanquins to the ancient Ason Bazaar (a once-in-a-year gathering of these four gods), and this grand occasion is celebrated by the locals with great fervor and joy. Their palanquins are made to crash against each other in front of the Annapurna Temple; that’s to announce in no uncertain terms that they have now met each other. Come evening, the celebrations are shifted to Tundikhel so as to propitiate a demon called Gurumumpa. Ghode Jatra falls on the second day of the Pahachare festival.