Published in The Kathmandu Post’s Op-Ed Section on Tuesday October 12th.
Nepal is certainly a superstitious country, which forms part of its mystical appeal for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock here annually. Outsiders are enthralled by Nepal’s rich culture; with its ethnic mosaic and fascinating festivals. I remember the insatiable curiosity that Indra Jatra invoked in me the first time I visited Nepal in 2004. However, as the excitement for Dashain builds, I find myself growing increasingly apprehensive.
As a foreigner in Kathmandu, Nepalis are excited to inform me that their “great festival” is approaching. However, as a vegetarian, as the build up increases momentum, I am seriously considering fleeing the country. Perhaps this reaction is verging on extreme, but I can honestly say that the cruelty involved in animal sacrifices really does not appeal to me. I feel it is a paradox that a festival which celebrates the triumph of good over evil relishes in the act of killing.
What is surprising to a foreigner is that the government is also complicit in this cruelty. In a public spectacle during Dashain, 54 buffaloes and 54 he-goats are beheaded by the government, with the Nepal Army subsequently killing 108 buffaloes. Not only does the event draw many devotees, but it is also screened on public television.
I am certainly not alone in feeling disgust towards this unnecessary and inhumane practice. On the whole, I largely perceived Nepalis to be indifferent to animal rights issues having seen the appalling attitudes with which stray dogs and livestock are treated. Fortunately, a handful of organisations, including animalNEPAL, Animal Rights Nepal and the Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) are publicly condemning the practice and campaigning for the better treatment of Nepal’s animals.
On Oct. 7, protestors revealed that ethical approaches to ritual sacrificial worship do indeed exist. At the Dakchhinkali Temple in Kathmandu, an actress dressed as Kali encouraged devotees to sacrifice fruits and vegetables. Last year, the AWNN appealed to the government, Army and police to cancel state funded sacrifices, stating that “Nepal is the world’s key implementers of animal sacrifice, a practice that promotes superstition and violence, drains the poor and prevents Nepal from becoming a truly advanced country. Decapitating a bleating buffalo or goat should not be the symbol of the Nepali civilisation.”
According to the Stop Animal Sacrifice Campaign, over one million animals were sacrificed in the country last year and it is estimated that between 40,000 and 45,000 goats will be consumed during Dashain. The future also looks bleak for thousands of buffaloes, ducks and chickens who will be sacrificed to the many manifestations of Durga.
One only has to glance at Nepal’s gruesome sacrificial calendar compiled by the Stop the Animal Sacrifice Campaign (parented by AWNN) to understand the extent of the cruelty and see that animals are torn apart and have their hearts ripped out of their chests, all in the name of religion. By far the most extreme of these rituals is Gadhimai, a festival which occurs once every five years and is little known to the outside world. In 2009, some 16,000 water buffaloes were killed in the name of religious devotion at this site. The killing marks one of the most horrific instances of animal cruelty in the world, as many of the animals were illegally imported from India in sub-standard conditions and not provided with food and water before the ‘event’. According to the AWNN, during the killings, many buffaloes were left un-tethered and no instructions were provided on either rules of sacrifice or the sharpening of knives- resulting in unnecessary, additional suffering. The animals were forced to witness the killing of other animals and many had already died from stress, dehydration and exhaustion before the killings even started. The three-km radius around the temple became a putrid abattoir as anyone, whether experienced or not, was able to kill with whatever weapon they carried.
Another significant bloodthirsty festival in the Hindu calendar is Khokanana, part of Gai Jatra, which occurs every August. A young she-goat is thrown into a pond and attacked by nine men (one from each ward) who bite and tear the terrified goat apart. Appallingly, the murderer is proclaimed the winner and leads a victory dance. To the rest of the world, Nepali society appears to be very harmonious regarding religious belief. Hindu and Buddhist identity is fluid in certain caste and ethnic groups, with many Nepalis making offerings during both Buddhist and Hindu festivals. That said, I was utterly shocked to discover that although the Buddha himself vehemently opposed animal sacrifice and despite Nepal’s supposed inter-religious respect, during this year’s Kul Puja (clan puja), which coincided with Buddha Jyanti (Buddha’s birthday), 1,000 goats were sacrificed at the Thapathali temple by the Rana clan. Despite the Stop Animal Sacrifice Campaign sending a letter appealing the Ranas to offer vegetarian sacrifices instead, their pleas were ignored and campaigners were appalled to witness the sacrifice of “so many innocent creatures.”
As an outsider in Nepal, I worry about making value judgments on behaviour so removed from my cultural background. However, I cannot condone superstitious belief that actively promotes and normalises violence or suffering, nor the festivals that are made deliberately more bloodthirsty to attract business. Physical suffering is a universal experience, for humans and animals alike. Indeed, Hindu and Buddhist ideologies stress the importance of dharma in escaping suffering in order to attain liberation. I just cannot understand the concept of sacrificing an animal in order to free it from its supposed suffering by actually causing it excruciating pain.
Arguably, violence in religion, whether towards humans or animals, has no place in a world that promotes human rights as an essential caveat for a country’s social progress and economic development. Nepal has already outlawed cruel and inhumane practices that have been associated with religion, including sati (widow immolation) and human sacrifice (made illegal in 1780). Despite Nepal’s desire to be seen as developing, as yet the government has not spoken out against mass animal sacrifices.
When Nepalis tell me about their great Dashain festival, I am reminded of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You can judge a nation by the way they treat their women and their animals.” If this is indeed true, what does this say about Nepal?
(Delaney holds a BA (hons) in Religions and Theology (South Asian Studies) from the University of Manchester. She is a writer currently based at The Post)