Sometimes, I like to while away time looking at old photographs, the older the better, which means invariably, black and white photographs. I was doing just that the other day, when I came across one which showed me as a small (perhaps 10-year-old) kid, standing next to a bullock cart on a dusty looking road in the countryside. A similarly-aged cousin was with me. A nondescript photograph at best, nothing special about it, but at the moment, it has acquired a completely new meaning, and has become one of the most meaningful photographs in my motley collection.
You see, it was taken during our trip to Bariyarpur from my hometown, Birgunj, to attend the then famous (now very infamous) Gadhimai Mela, a huge festival that is held once every five years in a small village called Bariyarpur some seven kilometers from Kalaiya, the district headquarters of Bara District in the Terai. I remember that our family (which was a relatively wealthy one) had traveled on half a dozen bullock carts; those days there were no metal-topped roads and very few motor vehicles, and I think we all had to do with hurricane lamps for light, since there was no electricity. Anyway, that photograph, today, brings back hazy recollections of large crowds, swirling dust, and the crescendo of noise of thousands of buffaloes, goats, and other animals. Somehow or the other, I have absolutely no recollections of the mass slaughter that must have taken place then, or perhaps we had gone a few days before the grounds became killing fields.
Now, today, there’s a lot of noise about the Gadhimai Mela, which has gained the notoriety of being the single largest sacrificial slaughter of animals in the world. This gruesome festival, which many declare to be inhumane and unnecessary carnage of hundreds of thousands of innocent farm animals, is justified by those who conduct it with a single phrase: to appease Goddess Gadhimai. Who is Gadhimai? Well, she is said to be a sister of Goddess Kali— yes, the very same Kali in whose temples hundreds of thousands of animals are sacrificed on Maha Asthami, the eighth day of Dashain, the biggest Hindu festival in Nepal that takes place every year around October.
However, Gadhimai Mela is in a class apart as far as sheer number is concerned in a single site, with about 250,000 different kinds of animals slaughtered in 2009, including 20,000 water buffaloes on the first of the two-day orgy of mindless violence. Although it is a month-long affair, with a carnival atmosphere all around the Gadhimai Temple, that began on November 15 this year, November 28 and 29 are the two days when around 250 ‘licensed’ killers will be entering the enclosure holding tens of thousands of male buffaloes (both big and small) and putting on a gory spectacle for the swarming crowds of eager spectators gathered around the ‘killing field’.
Expectedly, animal rights and other activists are up in arms, righteous in their anger and disgust, and the many photographs posted all over the internet are indeed gruesome to the extreme, with innumerable buffaloes lying in their own pool of blood, their heads decapitated from their bodies. And, among these bloody carcasses, fervent men with red bandanas around their heads brandishing long wicked looking knives, looking around for more ‘kills’. Reportedly, most of these ‘licensed’ killers are already quite high on alcohol before embarking on their unholy task. Of course, it is certainly not an unholy task for them, since they believe that they are fulfilling a religious duty, and in doing so, attaining the favor of Gadhimai.
The day of the slaughter is initiated with the sacrificing of five different animals (‘panch bali’: panch meaning five, bali meaning sacrifice)) to the goddess Gadhimai. These animals are: pig, buffalo, goat, rooster, and rat. Their throats are slit and their blood is sprayed all over the goddesses’ statue. More sacrifices follow in quick succession, with pigeons and ducks joining the ranks of the sacrificial animals. However, on the first day, it is the brutal slaughter of tens of thousands of buffaloes that is the center of attraction. Reportedly, some of the larger buffaloes are quite hard to be decapitated, and it requires the butchers to hack away many times before the head is severed from the body. The butchers take pride in achieving as many ‘clean’ kills as they can, that is, severing off the head with a single slash of the knife.
The second day, too, is a day when the ground turns a deeper red with the blood of hundreds of thousands of goats, chicken, pigeons, ducks, rats, and more buffaloes. Watching all this horrendous drama, and carrying along their own animals to be sacrificed, are crowds of people numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Reportedly, the last time around (that is, in 2009), the festival was attended by more than five million pilgrims. Now, imagine if you will: swarming throngs of excited people, innumerable milling animals (the large black buffaloes being the most conspicuous), roadside shops and eateries all over the place, fairgrounds with swings, different types of rides, and balloon sellers with large bunches of colorful balloons. Oh yes, for the uninitiated it will all seem like a great big fun-filled mela (carnival), but come November 28, and everything changes. The whole atmosphere becomes a frenzied one, and bloodletting becomes the name of the game.
An ironic fact about the Gadhimai Mela is that it is primarily a festival of the Tharu community, because traditionally, only someone from this community can be the priest of the Gadhimai Temple, and the Tharu community is known to be one of the most peace-loving of all communities in Nepal. Yet, every five years, they preside over a ‘mela’ that is now regarded with horror as the largest sacrificial slaughter of animals in the world. It’s not something that anybody would want to be associated with, and certainly, goes so very against the gentle character of the Tharu people. Something like the Gadhimai Mela is also not something that does any good to the image of a gentle, peace-loving country like Nepal.