Every spring as the dogwood and bougainvillea bloom, Kathmandu’s maidan, the ancient parade ground, echoes with the sound of hoofs. Ghode Jatra, the Horse Festival, features the army’s cavalry brigades in races, jumping, dressage, polo and more. The festival’s historic beginnings are lost in time, but legend records an origin story.
A gambler named Keschandra, who lived in Kathmandu in a place called Itum Bahal, is believed to be responsible. Keschandra’s father died when his son was young, leaving the boy all his wealth. Keschandra loved to gamble, and before long he had squandered his entire inheritance. Reduced to begging, he went to Pashupatinath Temple to ask for alms from the worshippers there. One day he was given a bowl of rotten rice, which he spread out on the ground to dry, so that he could separate the grain from the maggots. While he was begging nearby, pigeons ate all the rice.
The god Bhairab, patron of Kathmandu, took pity on Keschandra and turned the pigeons’ droppings into gold. When Keschandra returned he found so much gold that he could not carry it all, and he enlisted the assistance of a demon that lived at Pashupatinath’s cremation ground to help him carry it home. In return for his assistance the demon, named Gurumapa, was allowed to live in the monastery compound that Keschandra built at Itum. He was also accorded the right to eat all the disobedient children in the neighbourhood. To this day, residents of the area warn their children, “Be good, or Gurumapa will come for you!”
But as is the way of demons, Gurumapa got out of hand and began eating good children too. Keschandra decided to solve this problem and prepared a huge party for Gurumapa. Sated by a feast of rice and meat, Gurumapa agreed to leave Itum Bahal and live at the parade ground east of the city. He stipulated though that he must be served an annual feast in compensation for not being allowed to eat children.
To this day every year on the eve of the new moon in early spring, the men of Itum Bahal prepare a huge kettle of rice and buffalo meat and carry it at midnight to the Tundikhel grounds for Gurumapa. And next morning the cavalry takes over the ground, for the beating of the horses’ hoofs is said to send Gurumapa, now well fed, back to his underground home for another year.