Every year, the eighth day of Dashain, that is, Asthami, is a day of reckoning for hundreds of thousands of goats and buffaloes, besides an equal number of chickens, ducks, and pigeons. It is a day when the courtyards of thousands of Durga temples throughout the country become awash in deep red blood, with naked khukuris in the hands of blood-soaked young men slashing off the heads of the unfortunate creatures almost non-stop. Many households and offices will also see animals being beheaded as part of the ritual of doing puja of machineries and vehicles. All this is a tradition that has survived thousands of years, but is facing increasing criticism in recent years, with animal rights activists in full cry against the wanton sacrifice of animals.
Ironically, about a fortnight later, with the advent of Tihar, we’ll be seeing crows, the messengers of Yamaraj, the god of death, being worshipped, and dogs being serenaded with marigold garlands around their necks and tikas on their heads, and fed boiled eggs, meat delicacies, and other delicious food, for they are the envoys of Yamaraj. The main day of Tihar (Deepawali) will see cows being given the royal treatment. Those not familiar with the preceding festival of Dashain, and ignorant of the bloody day of Asthami, would conclude that we are a nation of animal lovers.
Yes, we are, and no, we are not! Our culture entails as much of bloodletting of animals as it does of venerating them. The cow is sacred; the majority of the population being Hindus, and killing one would land anybody in jail for a good ten years. We revere the cow. We even have a day called Nag Panchami to pay homage to serpents, for these too have an important place in our tradition and culture. Similarly, we are highly concerned with wildlife, as well, and go to great lengths to ensure that wild animals are protected. That is why we have many protected areas, twenty to be exact, covering 23% of the country’s total landmass, where many types of wildlife live in safety.
On the other side of the coin, and aside from other occasions entailing animal sacrifice, we have a festival called Gadhimai Mela in Bara district in the Terai that has probably set a world record as far as the number of sacrifices made during any single short time period is concerned. Literally, hundreds of thousands of the aforementioned animals fall prey to an assortment of knives, khukuris, swords, and what have you during the month-long carnival of blood and gore, which thankfully is only held once in five years. Naturally, this gory festival has borne the brunt of very strong criticism from one and all, with many civic organizations rallying determinedly to stop it altogether.
Well, yes, while one has to respect one’s tradition and culture, one has to be also mindful of the sensitivities involved, a natural outcome of increasing awareness reflecting a more humane and civilized society. It was not funny to see pictures of two goats being sacrificed in front of two new planes brought in by the national flag carrier at Tribhuvan International Airport some years ago. It was a silly sight. Similarly, it wasn’t a funny sight to see pictures of a goat being bitten to death in a pond by a group of youngsters during a festival, and neither was it amusing to see on television a buffalo being chased and stoned to death in another festival. The sight on TV and on the Internet of hundreds of thousands of headless goat and buffalo carcasses strewn over acres of a muddy field reddened by blood during the last Gadhimai Mela was a really terrible sight.
Such grisly spectacles do the country’s image no good, and most definitely, not in this age of multimedia. There is keen awareness in most countries of the need to uphold animal rights, and countless number of people and organizations dedicated to the same. One would think there’s enough reason to put a lid on such activities, but that’s easier said than done, for what we are talking about are traditions so strongly rooted, it will need more than a gust or two to even sway them. But, just think about it, isn’t it a far better sight to see man’s best friends scampering around with garlands around their necks than to lay one’s eyes on the gruesome sight of thousands of headless animal carcasses?