Grounded

Gadhimai’s gauntlet

By Rabi Thapa

1 December 2009

Setting aside the visual repulsion, the macabre excess and the gluttony for slaughter, Rabi Thapa investigates the logistical details involved in managing the 2009 Gadhimai Mela.
Photo: Flickr / wonderlane

Photo: Flickr / wonderlane

It’s midnight. The excitement is palpable around the pipal tree. The chief priest makes his offerings, chanting, while others from his family assist him. The focus of their attention is the staring, inexpressive, diminutive idol of Gadhimai at the base of the tree, wrapped in cloth, besmeared in vermillion and bedecked in flowers.  She has travelled down from her small temple nearby to this open field, and now her gaze of the ages reaches beyond the saffron-robed men fussing over her to the thousands upon thousands of devotees massed around her.

Animal sacrifice takes place here on a scale unsurpassed anywhere, a fact the organisers of the Mela are keen to promote as proof of the event’s popularity.

The priests are endeavouring to awaken the goddess, and one will have to offer blood from five parts of his body to aid the process. The people wait, in tense expectation, straining to peer into the big earthen jar a light is meant to appear in spontaneously. Some drift off to the rows upon rows of lighted stalls selling knick-knacks, food and clothes, and spend what little money they have on the big fairground rides that sprawl across the fields of Bariyapur.

In the second half of November, upto 10 million pilgrims will be expected to pass through this small Tharu town in the southeastern border district of Bara in Nepal. The Gadhimai Mela, celebrated every five years, can be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century when a Tharu named Bhagwan Chaudhary had a vision of the goddess while imprisoned in Makwanpur Fort. Today, the Gadhimai Mela is among the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.

Certainly animal sacrifice takes place here on a scale unsurpassed anywhere, a fact the organisers of the Mela are keen to promote as proof of the event’s popularity. This year, they are hoping to oversee the sacrifice of a staggering half a million animals, including buffalos, goats, pigs, chickens, pigeons, and even wild rats. Many of Gadhimai’s devotees, 60 percent from neighbouring states in India, will arrive in Bariyapur with animals in tow. They believe their offerings will obtain them their heart’s desires.  

The night wears on into early morning, and the men in saffron carry on with their inscrutable worship. The devotees wait still, and amongst them can now be seen clusters of young men with long khukuris, swords and scimitars. Then the light appears in the earthen jar. A priestess begins to shake and shudder, possessed by the spirit of the goddess, now awake. Sacrificial pillars are set up, and the killing begins. The armed men, numbering some 300-400, now move towards an enormous open-air corral and pass through the high gates. Twenty thousand young male buffalos await them. Their time has come, as has that of all the animals that will be sacrificed to Gadhimai in the next two days within a five-kilometre radius of the temple.

The organisers, a 1000-strong contingent formed into 15 committees dealing with all the practical aspects of such a gargantuan affair, will be pleased with the numbers this year. Even the local Village Development Committees (VDCs) contribute 1000 animals each, for there is big money at stake here, and they want to share in the profits.

‘In previous years the meat of the buffalos slaughtered – 14,000 in 2004 – was given out freely to the devotees and anyone who wanted it,’ explains Moti Lal Kusuwa, Secretary of the Organising Committee for the Gadhimai Mela. ‘People came all the way from Pokhara, Narayangadh and Kathmandu to cart away the meat while the hides were taken by tanners. This time we are holding a tender for the hides and meat together, and we hope to secure one for 20 million rupees.’

At the time of writing, negotiations were still ongoing with Nepali companies, mostly from Kathmandu. If the tender falls through, the committee will sell the meat and hides in smaller lots to all comers. Kusuwa claims that the proceeds of this and other tenders, along with offerings from pilgrims and fees charged for stall space and fairground rides, will be used to develop the whole district of Bara. No wonder the VDCs are lining up to contribute to the sacrifice.

They are some who contest the motives of Kusuwa and his colleagues, most obviously the coalition of animal welfare and religious organisations that is speaking out strongly against the mass sacrifice of animals on 24 and 25 November. According to the Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN), for instance, the Mela serves only to enrich a syndicate of local Nepali and Indian elites hand-in-glove with the Indian meat and tanning industries at the expense of superstitious poor people who can ill afford to buy a chicken, let alone a goat or buffalo.

“And where is the benefit to Nepal that the government sees fit to provide 4.5 million rupees to the Gadhimai organisers,” asks Pramada Shah, President of AWNN. “As far as I can see only the organisers and the business community benefit. In fact, someone let slip during our fact-finding mission that he had secured a tender for the parking business because he was related to the priest’s family.”

Those opposed to the Gadhimai sacrifices are also trying to draw the Government of Nepal’s attention to the risk of disease caused by proximity of massive numbers of animals and people, as well as the unregulated slaughter at different sites. The Director General of the Department of Livestock Services, Dr Prabhakar Pathak, has confirmed that the festival is a major cause for health concerns. An outbreak of PPR (pestes des petite ruminants, or goat plague) occurred here in 1994. There is only one quarantine office in Bara district, and the animals taken to Gadhimai do not pass through it.

But as in 2004, some measures have been taken to minimise the risk of outbreaks. The visiting animals may not be screened, but local livestock have been given vaccinations against PPR. Former director of Animal Health in the Department of Livestock Services, Dr Dhan Ratala, says that in 2004 over 90,000 goats were vaccinated in 15 days in a three-kilometre belt around the Gadhimai temple. This year, Deputy Regional Director of the department Dr Bal Ram Thapa has overseen the extension of this belt to six kilometres. The department has also provided for in-situ checks and treatment of animals and plans to implement safe disposal of animal remains post-sacrifice.  

Whether this will be effective or not remains to be seen. What is certain is that the Gadhimai Mela is going full steam ahead, notwithstanding appeals from public figures as diverse as the Nepali comic duo Madan Krishna and Hari Bansha Acharya, religious leader Ram Bahadur Bomjan (also known as Bara’s ‘Buddha Boy’) and animal rights activist and former Indian Minister for the Environment Maneka Gandhi.

Superstition or no, the millions of pilgrims streaming through the rural backwaters of Bara are unequivocal testimony to both the popularity of the Mela and the unfulfilled desires of those willing to sacrifice to the goddess. Hundreds of organisations have pitched in to help accommodate under makeshift tarpaulins those who have made the trip to Bariyapur. Moti Lal Kusuwa is well aware of the immense significance of the Gadhimai Mela, and welcomes all comers, even those who would dearly love to curtail the butchery it has become renowned for.  

“They are welcome to speak out against the sacrifices,” he says, before continuing with an air of conviction. “But they should not and will not be able to stop the sacrifice from taking place, because it is not us who have asked for it, it is Gadhimai Devi who has done so.”

~Rabi Thapa is a writer and editor based in Kathmandu.

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