In a large enclosed yard in a small town in southern Nepal, a man stands over a young water buffalo, a heavy sword held high in both hands. With a quick motion he brings the sword down on the buffalo’s neck, severing the head from the body. By day’s end, this grisly scene is repeated 20,000 times, as roving men in the yard single out other buffaloes for decapitation, until the area is turned, in the words of one observer, into "a foul smelling marsh land covered in blood and animal remains."
The killing of the buffaloes is intended as a sacrifi ce to Gadhimai, a Hindu goddess of power. It is part of the month-long Gadhimai Festival, held every fifth year in November in the town of Bariyarpur. During the 2009 festival, an estimated 5 million people converged on the town of a little over 7,000 residents. Participants - 70 percent of whom are from neighboring regions of India where animal sacrifice is restricted or banned - believe that animal sacrifices to the goddess will end evil and bring prosperity.
Two days (November 24 and 25) were devoted to the sacrifices. An estimated 250,000 animals were killed - the blood of goats, pigs, sheep and birds joining that of the buffaloes. It is, perhaps, the largest ritual animal sacrifice in the world. And some animal welfare activists in Nepal are working to stop it.
As preparations for the 2009 Gadhimai Festival gathered steam, Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN), a consortium of seven Nepali animal welfare organizations, launched the Stop Animal Sacrifice Campaign to promote less cruel methods of worship. Meanwhile, animal welfare groups in India are attempting to form a similar consortium.
According to Pramada Shah, vice president of Animal Nepal, one of the organizations that created AWNN: "The anti-sacrifice movement began 15 years ago in Nepal by a group of devout Hindus opposed to this ritual." In anticipation of the 2009 Festival, she said, "Various awareness raising programs were organized at Bara [the district in which Bariyarpur is located] to appeal to the temple priests and public to opt for vegetarian offerings."
The cruelty to the animals begins long before they are slaughtered. Nepali activist Manoj Gautam states: ‘The animals were not provided with any water and food in the days before the sacrifice. Many young animals had in fact already died from stress, exhaustion and dehydration before the killings started. Their bodies were left among the live animals." There are also no measures taken to ensure humane slaughter, says Gautam: "The organizers failed to issue rules for the general sacrifices that were carried out randomly in a radius of 3 kilometers of the temple. Everyone could kill anything, with whatever knife or sword. Many animals died an unbearable, slow and violent death because the knives were not sharpened properly and the butchers were inexperienced."
The Gadhimai Festival is not the only religious celebration in Nepal during which animals are killed. A number of annual festivals feature smaller - but still significant - sacrifices, most notably Dasain, the country’s largest festival, a 15-day celebration held before the rice harvest, in September/October. On the eighth day of Dasain, mass sacrifices commence. The government itself publicly beheads 54 buffaloes and 54 goats, followed by the Nepali army’s killing of 108 buffaloes. The event is shown on national television. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of goats are sacrificed during Dasain, as well as an undetermined number of buffaloes, ducks, chicken, and other animals.
Appeals to the Nepali government to curb the killing have gone largely unheeded, says Shah: "Menaka Gandhi, noted animal rights activist and member of Parliament from India, supported this campaign wholeheartedly and wrote to the president and prime minister [of Nepal] to stop the sacrifices. Brigitte Bardot, eminent animal rights activist and actor from France, did the same. All pleas, however, fell on deaf ears and the government refused to intervene, saying it would not impinge on the rights of people to practice animal sacrifice according to their beliefs."
AWNN is also working with the religious community to promote alternatives. Says Shah: "Since this ritual is based on faith and belief, we need to tread carefully. One of the founders of the anti-sacrifice movement - cultural expert Dr. Govida Tandon - has studied the Hindu texts intensively and has concluded that the Hindu religion does not prescribe animal sacrifice." AWNN promotes vegetarian offerings of flowers, pumpkins and coconuts - even sacrificing of one’s bad habits. They enlist religious scholars to explain that these are acceptable practices. Shah cautions, however, that "Deep-rooted cultural and religious beliefs - not only among the uneducated but also among the educated - is a great obstacle. Nepali society is very superstitious by nature and this is an obstacle as well. ‘What if something bad happens to our family if we stop sacrificing animals’ is a common comment from many."
Despite the grim prospects for an immediate end to the sacrifices, Shah does see rays of hope:
"Logical arguments and fact-based evidence can help change people’s minds. Nepali people have experienced and welcomed many political and social changes so this gives us hope. Many families have seen the futility of animal sacrifice and are giving it up voluntarily. One thing that made us hopeful recently was when the main priest of Gadhimai who initiated and supported the massacre at the temple performed a cleansing ritual organized by our group to commemorate the first anniversary of the Gadhimai massacre. This is a positive change. We hope he comes around and encourages people to offer vegetarian sacrifices."
Shah says since the animal rights movement is relatively new in Nepal, very few people are involved, though the number is steadily growing. "We had realized that it would be impossible [in 2009] to stop the sacrifices but it was our intention to make a huge hue and cry about it and to start a debate in society about animal sacrifice." As for the future: "We have started working with the media more intensively and with the local communities in Bara. We are going to mobilize people against animal sacrifice locally and nationally. We do realize it will take a long time to eradicate the practice, if ever, but we are confident that it can be greatly reduced."