Gadhimai is a Hindu Goddess of power. Appeasing her brings prosperity, good fortune, and helps to ward off evil. Need a wish fulfilled or feel obligated to give thanks for good fortune? Gadhimai is your goddess. However, coins in a wishing well won't cut it. Gadhimai requires blood…..lots and lots of blood. As one female devotee was quoted in a local newspaper, "Our Goddess has given everything and it should be given back to her."
The Gadhimai Festival is held every five years in Bariyarpur, Nepal roughly 150 km (90 miles) south of Kathmandu. This year it was held on the 24th and 25th of November. Statistics are sketchy at best but attendance was estimated in the millions with some figures pushing above ten million. In the course of two days an untold number of buffaloes, goats, chickens, pigeons, ducks, and mice were put down in honor of Gadhimai. The estimates are 16,000 to 20,000 buffaloes and 200,000 to 300,000 of the smaller animals. If Gadhimai ain't happy with that than she is one insatiable bitch of a divinity. Holy shitballs.
A few days ago I had been causally scanning the net as I often do in order to keep abreast of local news in Nepal. I happened upon a story about the festival and became intrigued to say the least. After sharing what I found with some British friends I met on a rafting trip we decided to check it out.
The relatively short distance from Kathmandu belies the time it takes to reach Bariyapur. We hired a car and a driver and inquired as to whether it would be possible to drive at night in order to avoid wasting a day traveling and also to avoid heavy traffic. We were informed that leaving Kathmandu at 1 am was no problem and that our driver would retire early so as to be rested for the journey. Turns out he slept nary a wink before departure. I should've suggested he get drunk as well just to complete circle.
So we (the four musketeers and the driver) packed ourselves into the 'luxury' car provided for us. Although we were told it would be luxury we had no illusions as to the definition of the word. 'Luxury' can be loosely defined as slightly more spacious than a circus clown car. Throw two blokes over six feet tall into the mix and you have the makings of a pleasant overnight ride. I had learned from a previous bus trip that Valium can be one hell of a trip enhancer, allowing one to fall asleep in unimaginable positions and postures. It was a little like stuffing myself into a dryer and taking a nap.
The day we left we were told that there might be a slight problem and not to become angry with the driver if we were forced to walk the last 18 km (11 miles) due to the state of the roads. I was not actually present when this caveat was passed along and did not discover this potential wrinkle until about 12:30 am on the morning of our departure. Marvelous.
We were told the journey would take about six hours. This was accurate if you flip the six upside down. Luckily, a half marathon was not required as we did manage to surmount the unpaved road that led to the temple of Bariyapur in the Bara District of Nepal. However, an hour and a half walk from the parking area was required.
The area surrounding the festival is many square kilometers of rice fields. On the approach we found ourselves in a wagon train of buses, cars, tractors, motorcycles, and bicycles. The devout were pouring in and out the area. The flat terrain is quite different from the mountainous regions to the north and although the winter nights can be cool the days tend to heat up a bit even during the fall and winter.
As we moved closer to the temple we saw harbingers of what was to come. People were conducting their own private ceremonies in the rice fields on either side of the path and folks carrying headless goats was not an uncommon sight. There were patches of blood spread intermittently as we approached the temple. And the density of people was also increasing dramatically until it became a pushing match the whole way. The atmosphere was a bit carnival-like with all kinds of items for sale from food to children's toys.
There were almost no western tourists on hand and my small band and I were being heavily scrutinized (I had not experienced this since my days in less traveled parts of Indonesia). Many young men approached and asked us where we were from. I was not particularly chipper at that point as my head was swimming with dust and heat and the constant jostling of bodies is enough to try anyone's patience. It did not take long before I started to feel as though this little side trip was a mistake.
We finally passed the temple but could not get anywhere near it due to the volume of people entering. Curiously, the roof of the temple was covered in pigeons, one might say unnaturally so. We could only deduce that the rooftops are sprinkled with food in order to draw them near. Although pigeons are also sacrificed I believe these were free and their arrival a propitious sign for the adherents.
It is at this temple where the head priest kicked off the festivities with the sacrifice of a mouse, a pig, a pigeon, a goat, and buffalo. As for the main event, today was buffalo day. We had been told that the area for the mass sacrifice of buffaloes was near the temple but it was not apparent to us initially where exactly that was. We assumed there must be a field nearby so we continued to force our way through the crowd. At one point we noticed a brick wall with folks standing on it about 100 meters from our path so we decided to break away and check it out. As we drew closer we noticed that people were attempting to climb the eight foot wall to get a better look at what was on the other side. There were police officers walking along the wall 'discouraging' such behavior with wooden sticks. However, no sooner did a couple of light raps on the back of the head force one man down than another was scaling the wall just behind the officer. I decided that whatever was on the other side must be of interest so I made my own attempt.
I had assumed there was some sort of ceremony unfolding but my initial peek over the wall with a haphazard lunge revealed the truth. In that one second I came face to face with the grizzly nature of the festival. There were thousands of dead buffalo spread over the area of roughly a thousand square yards enclosed by the brick wall. Not quite processing what I had just seen I quickly made a successful second attempt and as I sat atop the wall I was presented with a scene I will not soon forget. Thousands upon thousands of decapitated buffaloes strewn all over the corral. Among them were the remaining survivors, either walking between the carcasses of their fallen comrades, huddled in the corner in a futile attempt to escape their fate, or lying amidst the carnage seemingly trying to blend in to avoid detection.
Although most of the animals had been put down there were still a significant number awaiting the Grim Reaper. And who carries out the dirty work? I have read it is a volunteer group of 250 authorized butchers (this is the term used by them and is not meant to denigrate). The assignment is considered an honor. Apparently, they arrive as early as 3 am to begin preparations. Their work begins at 9 am and is carried out with large curved knives that are more than adequate for the job. If carried out properly the head is severed instantly and requires only one swing of the sword, although sometimes a bit of sawing is necessary to finish the job. When a contestant has been identified one volunteer holds the tether while the other stands to the side, raises the knife with both hands, and brings it down with an abrupt downward swoop. This sometimes requires patience and some assistance as they have a tendency to move away. Throughout the day many rest breaks are necessary as the work can be exhausting.
It felt a little more like a battlefield than a mass animal sacrifice as the field was littered with heads and bodies and painted with blood and spinal fluid. It was undeniably gruesome yet inescapably fascinating all at the same time. To think that all of these animals were brought here by devout Hindus in hopes of ensuring good fortune or as remuneration for a wish granted was mind boggling. These men were not mere butchers but men carrying out religious edict. In other words they were doing the work of a goddess.
While I walked about snapping morbid photos and trying to get a handle on all that was swirling through my head I noticed the others speaking with a member of the Nepali media. I walked over to see what was happening and before I knew it was being interviewed on camera. The reporter asked what had brought me there and about my impressions, to which I replied that it all started with a cursory glance at news on the internet. Impressions? Well, I told him that this is so unlike anything I've ever experienced that I was not so sure what to make of it. After he finished questioning us he gave us his card, told us to keep an eye on the news (our interview would air in an hour and a half but sadly my response did not make the cut), and implored us to keep an open mind in light of what we witnessed. We thanked him for his input and background information.
I have to admit that the compulsion to pass judgment, to condemn is overwhelming. The repulsion is visceral in nature but I am doing my best to comprehend, not to pass sentence without attempting to see the whole picture. The fact is we did not witness this festival from beginning to end and I am sure there is much we did not see. On top of that there is so much about the tradition that I do not know. There is a dearth of information about festival's history and about the goddess herself. The language barrier prevented us from getting any real detail from the people we met there. I cannot condone what I saw but on the other hand I cannot totally condemn it either when there is so much I do not understand and so many preconceptions I hold from my own background.
What if you were to view it from the lens of a true believer and saw this practice as necessary to the happiness of Gadhimai's followers? What if instead of needlessly slaughtering an animal you were merely releasing the spirit of the beast to a higher plane of existence subject to the protection of the goddess herself?
It is also important to realize that the meat is given back to the people for consumption (supposedly) and the bones and hides are sold (the monetary aspect of this can cut both ways). I guess the point I am trying to make is that with the exception of the heads (which are allegedly buried on the temple grounds) most of the animal is put to use. It is not a complete waste.
And there is another angle to this. Forget religion for a moment and take a trip to a mechanized slaughterhouse in the developed world. The slaughter of cattle, pigs, and chickens has been turned into a science and I assure you the process is no less disturbing. It may, in fact, be more so and involves the culling of millions of animals per day. And the purpose here is solely secular in nature, i.e. to satisfy the culinary preferences of hundreds of millions of people. I wonder if I were to include pictures of the slaughtering process somewhere in America if the photos would be any less troubling. It is not that these folks are any worse, just that 'we' may not be any better. The argument could be made that killing animals for religious purposes may even stand on higher moral ground. Who knows? I am not making a case one way or another, merely attempting to provoke thought and hoping to illustrate that no matter how much we wish to make the world black and white, no matter how much it may comfort us to put everything into neat little categories it is seldom, if ever, that simple.
So what photos/videos should I include? I am not going for shock value although 'shocking' is certainly an appropriate adjective. So after considering it for a while I realized that my aim is to convey, as much as possible, my experiences and place the reader in my shoes to see what I saw. So here it is. And it is disturbing.
Crazy! You have some amazing photos here.ReplyDelete
Yes they are amazing in the sense that such cruelty could be happening in this day and age.Delete
hinduon ke naam par kalank hai ye log hindu dharm main kahin nhi likha ke bhagwan janwar ki bali mangte hain ,,,, itne jaanwaro ka khoon peekar insaan khush ho rha hai ke maine bohot bahudari ka kaam kiya hai,,, dhikkar hai shayad yahi karan hai ke hinduon ke pavitra mandiron sthano par aapdaon ki baad lag gyi hai ,,, aur log maout ke mukh main sama rahe hain,,,ReplyDelete
This massacre belongs to the middle ages. There is nothing holy about the suffering and bloodthirsty killing of in-numerous innocent souls.ReplyDelete
so mad, i ban this region- i cant understand this mad world for masakre-kill on poor animal- this shall stop- NOW-- this are a very mad primitive peoble some can make dead on sweet animal-- = home-make ritul-slaugther :-(((((((((((((((---we are in 2014-15, thinking new time- but not killing time on animal-i ban this- STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP ALL KILL on poor sweet animal- ANIMAL HAVE FILLING SOME US-- cry for all bilioner animal in NEPAL !!!!!ReplyDelete
You initially found some of this "funny" (the decapitation of the buffalo and it not realizing that its head is severed from its body.) Please have some compassion for the poor animal. This whole sacrifice is sickening.ReplyDelete
modbydeligt mord på dyr- kan død være en fest ??????-- primitivt modbydeligt mord-- de kan halshugge hinanden------ IKKE PÅ DYRReplyDelete
dyredød, giver rådenskab--- det er usundt for naturen ---- og indånde den lugt = forudrening, mord på dyr skal stoppes, nuReplyDelete
Heartless human beings let the god put an end to thisReplyDelete
Very interesting reportage on this cultural event. I admire how you presented your story without condemning the participants. We're too quick these days, in the west, to eviscerate people for aspects of their culture that we don't understand or disagree with (evidence the comments after the article.) I'm glad the meat is used for food. In that sense, the only real difference between east and west on this count is that we kill our food in slaughterhouses and they do it in a field. I wonder about the spoilage of the meat though, sitting in a field for what must be a long time, in the hot sun.ReplyDelete
Condemnation is easy. Empathy takes effort. To travel is to try to understand, to comprehend. Otherwise, what's the point? I wondered about the spoilage also. I wish I'd inquired more deeply about where exactly the meat goes. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it.Delete
Thank you for your excellent, informative reportage. As gruesome as they may be, your photos are fantastic. I admire you and your companions for undertaking such a trip. It sheds much needed light on the reasons behind this ritual. It is easy to condemn the practice while, as you pointed out, we Westerners kill more animals in high-tech slaughterhouses.ReplyDelete