The death of an innocent in Kathmandu
After a lunch of momos in central Kathmandu, we wandered through the throngs of protesters on motorbikes (another story), past painted holy men and women begging to be paid for taking their picture, to Durbar Square and into the Hanuman Dhoka. After meandering through corridors and rooms of the Tribhuvan museum of costumes and artefacts of former kings, we found a large open courtyard (Nasal Chowk) where something was definitely ‘going on’. Soon we realised it was some sort of celebration with crowds of Nepalese families dressed in their most flamboyant robes, picnicking and lounging around a raised platform. Very old men wearing saucer-shaped hats, sand-coloured jackets and white swathes of cloth, reclined in plastic chairs, occasionally chatting on their mobile phones. In one corner of the square, the body of an animal lay discarded on the ground – this should have given us a clue.
We strolled around, taking pictures of the architecture and peeped into another small courtyard where a water buffalo was gently chewing away while more holy men gathered and chatted. Back out in the sunlit expanse, a band of musicians started to bang drums, strike cymbals and blow discordant horns. People crowded onto the dias and the buffalo, draped with garlands, was led out and disappeared into the throng. The crowd got more are more frenzied, the noise of the band more strident, reaching a final crescendo of shouting.
We realised, quite suddenly, that we had witnessed an animal sacrifice.
The crowd on the platform started to move. One by one, from young children to old men, they knelt quickly in front of a small sort of canopied altar to touch a holy man which also contained the animal’s head, thrusting their own heads near to the petal strewn beast before leaving to make way for the next worshipper.
It transpired that we’d stumbled upon a Hindu celebration that happens only once every 100 years. After much merriment and celebration, the crowd, led by very frail holy men who shuffled along blessing people in their wake, finally dispersed.
It’s easy to criticise rituals and customs which are different to our own. Undoubtedly the last few moments of the animal’s life was pretty bewildering and stressful. In ‘developed’ countries, we systematically keep animals for food in bewildering and stressful conditions as a matter of course. However, upon reading the guide book, I realised that this killing was modest in scale of some festivals in Nepal where thousands of animals (chickens, goats and buffalo) are ritually slaughtered and the streets run with blood. We felt privileged to just happen upon this event, a fascinating insight into how religion influences daily life, but were glad we hadn’t unintentionally blundered into a different one.
My friends and I were whisked off from the frenetic square in horse-drawn carriages to the tranquil Garden of Dreams, almost surreal by contrast.
Our visit to Nepal was in May 2012, but I was reminded of this when an email from Compassion in World Farming altered me to the festival of ‘Gadhimai’ which takes place every five years in the Bara District of Nepal, south of Kathmandu. It’s set to happen again this November, and sees tens of thousands of buffalo corralled into a gigantic pen where 200 slaughtermen behead them, one by one, with swords (often taking several attempts to finish the job). As well as the appalling suffering to these animals and the waste of life, The Nepalese Government provides significant funding, which makes this festival possible on this scale. In 2009 the Government paid over £32,000 for animals to be sacrificed which is almost 50 times the minimum Nepalese annual wage.
You may have other views about this, but I’ve added my name to a petition to the Nepalese government and support with Surya Upadhya (Chairman) who has issued this statement, “The Nepalese Hindu Forum UK completely opposes animal sacrifice as Hinduism does not sanction the killing of living beings… There should not be any place for this inhumane, barbaric sacrifice of innocent animals in the name of any religion.”