The Festival of Gadhimai: A Sick Tradition

Campaigners are fighting to stop the practices of the festival of Gadhimai in Nepal. Here’s why

By Chere Di Boscio

Nepal – especially its capital, Katmandu – has long been associated with peaceful Buddhist monks meditating on mountaintops. Or Westerners travelling long and far, seeking Hindu gurus for enlightenment and wisdom. But in reality, this tiny nation is filled with utter horror every five years.

Most of us probably believe blood sacrifices are something from a barbaric past. Rituals that only savages undertook in the ancient cities of Judea or Babylon to appease their gods. But the sad truth is that such cruel traditions are still thriving in many parts of the world. Including Nepal.

I’m talking about the Gadhimai Festival, which some say dates back only 265 years. At that time, the founder of the Gadhimai Temple, Bhagwan Chowdhary, a feudal landlord who was in jail at the time, dreamt that the goddess Gadhimai demanded blood in return for freeing him from prison. If he made a human sacrifice, she said she would also protect him from evil and give him prosperity and power. Chowdhary successfully offered an animal sacrifice instead, and this has been repeated every five years since.

Or so the story goes.

A Kinder Myth

There are other versions of this myth, too. In the book “The Five-Year Animal Sacrifice: On the trail of the largest animal sacrifice-festival in the world,”  author Ravi M. Singh alleges that the origins of the Gadhimai festival go back much farther. And probably weren’t at all bloody.

The sacrificial festival, Singh writes: “dates back some 900 years to a simple god-fearing and benevolent resident of Bariyarpur named Bhagwan Chaudhary.”

One day, a theft took place at his house. But the thieves were caught red-handed and killed by enraged villagers. Fearing that his fellow villagers would be convicted [of murder], Bhagwan Chaudhary took the blame upon himself. He was sent to Nakkhu jail in Kathmandu.

One night, Gadhi, the goddess of Makwanpur, appeared in his dreams. She asked him to take her to Bariyarpur and the scene of the crime. The goddess’s occult powers freed Bhagwan Chaudhary from the jailhouse. A pinch of soil from her feet applied to his turban enabled him free passage back to his village.

In return, Gadhi Mai asked him to sacrifice five humans each year. Bhagwan Chaudhary said he would be unable to perform human sacrifice. Instead, he vowed a quintuple sacrifice every five years. It would include a rat, a pig, a rooster, a goat, and a water buffalo.

This ritual wasn’t good enough, though. The children of Bariyarpur suddenly took ill and started dying. Bhagwan Chaudhary again made an appeal to Gadhimai. He was one again directed by the goddess to offer a human sacrifice. The hunt began for a human, but to no avail. Fortunately, a villager from Simri from the neighboring Rautahat district came to the rescue and offered to shed five drops of blood from his body as a sacrifice, instead of his life. That saved the village from calamity.

festival of gadhimai

The Cruellest Spectacle

Today, as in the past, animals of five species are sacrificed together in Nepal. Coconuts, however, are sacrificed hundreds of times more often than animals. The fact that the place where Gadhimai is said to have lived is marked with a coconut-breaking stone suggests that coconut offerings were historically the main way to worship this goddess.

But sadly for millions of animals, the thousands of devotees who travel to the temple from India and Nepal today believe the only way to have their wishes fulfilled is by the brutal slaughtering of animals.

And brutal it is! Campaigners from Humane Society International/India have witnessed harrowing scenes of animal suffering at the festival in Nepal. Typical heart-wrenching scenes include baby buffaloes bellowing for their mothers as they watch them being beheaded with machetes in the temple arena. Others animals collapse from fear and exhaustion as devotees try to drag them to their death. Streets are slick with blood and gore after every horrifying festival.

A Most Depressing Experience

Alokparna Sengupta, Humane Society International/India’s Managing Director, said this about the Gadhimai Festival: “Being here at the Gadhimai sacrifice is one of the most depressing and challenging experiences of my life. The suffering of these animals is so upsetting, they have endured exhausting journeys to get here and are paraded in front of a baying crowd as all around them they witness other animals being decapitated one by one. Buffalo calves look on in bewilderment as their mothers are slaughtered in front of them.

The hysteria and apparent jubilation at seeing confused and frightened animals being slaughtered was very disturbing. We pleaded with the Temple priest to do something to stop the bloodshed, as he has the influence to make a difference, but he has chosen to do nothing as far as we are aware, despite the Temple having promised an animal sacrifice ban five years ago.

Confronted with such terrible scenes of animal slaughter, we take comfort from knowing that many thousands more animals would have died but have been spared this massacre due to the combined efforts of animal groups, multi faith groups and the Indian border force. We helped save hundreds of baby goats, pigeons and buffaloes at the border, and devotees have brought thousands fewer buffaloes than at previous Gadhimai events. We may not have a bloodless Gadhimai this time, but we are determined that one day we will see an end to this gruesome spectacle.”

Tanuja Basnet, director of Humane Society International/Nepal, also witnessed the slaughter and said: “Such scenes of animal suffering are a stain on Nepal’s international reputation. There is no justification for this mass killing, and it is truly heartbreaking to witness, especially knowing that the Temple could and should have kept its promise to help these animals.” 

Is Progress Being Made?

A whopping 3,500 buffaloes were beheaded in the temple arena this year. Most were smuggled illegally into Nepal from India in the middle of the night. It seems like an insane number of needless deaths. But keep this in mind: at its height in 2009, the sacrifice event took the lives of half a million buffaloes, goats, pigeons and other animals. Following global protests, this was reduced to 30,000 in 2014.

Over the past year, however, animal groups such as HSI/India, HSI/Nepal, Federation of Animal Welfare Nepal and People for Animals have launched a series of public awareness campaigns to urge devotees not to bring animals. And members of the HSI/India delegation pleaded with the Gadhimai Temple head priest, Mangal Chowdhury, to stop the killing long before this year’s festival began. But he stubbornly refused to act. The priest’s inaction comes despite the Gadhimai Temple Trust having pledged to ban animal sacrifice way back in 2015.

Some Good News

There is some good news, though. HSI says the combined efforts of animal welfare groups, faith groups and officers at the India-Nepal border have resulted in fewer animals being slaughtered at the festival of Gadhimai than at the same event five years ago.

These are some of the other triumphs animal rights campaigners have recently celebrated:

  • The Supreme Court of Nepal directed government bodies to reduce animal sacrifice at the festival.
  • Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation, Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Communication & Information Technology all published notices in local newspapers to reduce, discourage and ultimately end animal sacrifice.
  • HSI/India joined with Bihar’s Animal Husbandry Department, People for Animals and Jag Jagran Sansthan, to perform street theatre and radio plays promoting the bloodless Gadhimai message
  • In Kathmandu and Bara, multi-faith groups alongside HSI/Nepal, FAWN and other animal welfare groups, worked together to urge the government to ban religious animal sacrifice ​across all religious, cultural, caste, ethnic and linguistic groups in Nepal.
  • HSI asked members of the public to send an urgent plea to the Prime Minister of Nepal to intervene to stop the sacrifice.
  • Some members of the Dalit community (the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system) who traditionally have the grim task of slaughtering animals, and removing and skinning the carcasses, refused to provide their services by way of protest.

Not Just Nepal

Sadly, regular animal sacrifices are not restricted to the festival of Gadhimai in Nepal.

The Durja Puja Festival in India and Bangladesh, which reveres and pays homage to the Hindu goddess, Durga, is marked by performance arts, revelry, gift giving, family visits, feasting, public processions…and the sacrifice of a goat or bull.

Most communities today prefer symbolic sacrifice, however. In this case, a statue is smeared with vermilion, which is symbolic of blood. Other substitutes include the offering of a vegetable or sweet dish, which considered equivalent to animal flesh.

In fact, many modern Durja devotees believe animal sacrifices to be distasteful. Instead, they are quite happy to practice alternate means of expressing devotion.

Muslim Traditions

Traditionally, Muslims who do the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) are meant to sacrifice a lamb or goat. Even those Muslims who are not on the Hajj will participate in a sacrifice of a goat or lamb wherever they are, on the 10th day of the 12th lunar month in the Islamic calendar. This is understood to be a symbolic re-enactment of Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son.

Meat from this occasion is divided into three parts. One is kept by the sacrificing family for food, the other gifted to friends and family, and the third given to the poorer Muslims in the community.

Some would quite rightly argue that ‘at least’ the animal’s flesh is eaten and given to those in need. After all, meat-eaters are implicitly guilty in the daily slaughter of hundreds of millions of animals that they mindlessly consume without any awareness of or thoughts about their suffering whatsoever, since they leave the dirty work to slaughterhouses.

However, it should be noted that many scholars argue that sacrifice is not actually a pillar of Islam. Nor is it obligatory during Hajj, its accompanying ‘Id or the ‘Id al-Fitr.

European Cruelty – Our Ongoing Shame

And if you’re thinking that this article is pointing a finger at ‘others’ with regards to blaming them for these sacrificial rituals, or is in any way implying that Anglo-European societies are above animal cruelty, all we need to do is consider the multiple cruel acts in our past and present – such as the French torturing and burning cats alive for fun and ‘good luck’ right up to the 1800s, or using animals tortured into doing tricks in circuses and marine parks – a practice that still continues today.

Let’s not forget that Spain exported the cruel spectacle of the bullfight all over Latin America. Spain still allows this ridiculous barbarity to go on in their own ‘civilised’ nation. And that’s not even touching on the subject of animals suffering unimaginable physical and psychological pain in commercial and scientific animal tests and in factory farms all over America and Europe.

The truth is, despite the fact that we may feel ‘above’ ritual animal sacrifice, viewing it as pagan and barbaric, the Gadhimai Festival, (which is both of those things), gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own culture, too, holding a mirror up to ourselves.

We need to ask: what is it about human nature that makes us ignore animal suffering? Where is animal cruelty in our culture accepted as being ‘just something we do’? And most importantly: how can we change that?

Chere Di Boscio
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