Animal advocates celebrating end of five-yearly festival are warned the tradition of sacrifice of living beings runs deep
EXPERTS are advising caution as campaigners celebrate the announcement that the world’s biggest animal-beheading frenzy will end.
The bloody festival of Gadhimai in Nepal may not be entirely over, they warned, as religious beliefs and rituals run deep in Hindu culture – and just this week evidence emerged of human ritual sacrifice in the country.
The festival, held every five years, involves decapitating hundreds of thousands of buffalo and other animals in giant pens without stunning, using knives and swords.
But on Tuesday, the Gadhimai temple trust announced that after 265 years, the killing would end, to be replaced with “peaceful worship and celebration”.
Fam Chandra Shah, head of the temple trust, said: “For generations, pilgrims have sacrificed animals to the goddess Gadhimai, in the hope of a better life. For every life taken, our heart is heavy. The time has come to transform an old tradition.”
Progressive, younger thinkers, will rejoice in the cancellation of the festival as a sign of commitment to a more secular society –Nepalese expert Professor Michael Hutt
An estimated half a million creatures were killed in the two-day event in 2009. Fully conscious animals, including water buffalo, sheep, goats and pigs were decapitated or had their throats cut by untrained knifemen, and their bodies and separated heads lay thick on the ground afterwards.
A consultant for HSI India, Gauri Maulekhi, who campaigned on the ground against the sacrificial practices, said: “We commend the temple committee but acknowledge that a huge task lies ahead of us in educating the public so that they are fully aware.”
He said HSI India and others would now spend the next three-and-a-half years until the next Gadhimai educating devotees in key states on the temple’s decision. “Animal sacrifice is a highly regressive practice and no nation in the modern world should entertain it,” he said.
Boy, 10, sacrificed
However, the practice of sacrifice of living creatures is deeply embedded in Hindu tradition, and is widespread even away from the Gadhimai festival.
Just this week, it was reported that a 10-year-old boy had been murdered on the advice of a shaman, in the belief that a human sacrifice would help cure another boy. One man was arrested.
An expert in Nepalese culture told The News Hub animals are slaughtered daily without stunning, which would make them insensitive to pain. “You have a culture there particularly of animal sacrifice to the gods in Hinduism. One big blow of the khukri [a traditional knife] and off comes the head,” said Professor Michael Hutt.
Mr Hutt, head of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ South Asia Institute at the University of London, predicted a mixed reaction to the ban on Gadhimai killings, as Nepal is going through a slow transition from a kingdom to a secular state.
“A lot of people – the progressive, secular, younger thinkers, will rejoice in the cancellation of the festival as a sign of commitment to a secular society,” he said. “But others – an older, more conservative sector, will mourn it as the end of a tradition. I expect some might still try to take animals for slaughter to the next event.”
The slaughter festival was big business for those who sell the meat. Organisers made about £1.5million from each event, so there is likely to be pressure in 2019 to resurrect it.
Some parts of Nepal are populated by Hindus who do not believe in animal sacrifice – and many of whom are vegetarian – but superstition runs deep in the Bara district, where Gadhimai is held.
A spokeswoman for HSI in the UK added: “The hard work is now ahead of us in terms of mass awareness-raising. We now enter the planning phase of what will surely be a multi-faceted large-scale public education programme.
“I’m sure that some people will still bring animals, and there will be an exercise on the ground in 2019 during the festival, but we’ll be working in direct co-operation with the temple trust to ensure that we implement the best approach.”
Joanna Lumley, the former Bond girl, Absolutely Fabulous star and Gurkha rights campaigner (left), last year appealed to Nepal to halt the festival, saying mass unregulated slaughter should play no part in the cultural life of the country where she has many friends and followers.
Lumley, whose father was a wartime Gurkha officer, wrote to the Hindu Council UK, saying: “Festivals involving animal sacrifice are increasingly seen as out of date in the modern world. With Hinduism’s history of vegetarianism, so beautifully illustrated by many of the great teachers and by leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, this particular festival stands out as a cruel anachronism.”
The Nepalese government put more than £32,000 towards the 2009 event, but last year it reportedly did not fund it, in response to a global outcry.
UK Hindus’ views
Supporters of the festival claimed it was an established tradition and that the number of people sacrificing animals in the hope of wealth and good luck was rising. They said Westerners should not make judgments.
But opponents say the killings were far worse than those in Western abattoirs – both because of the numbers involved and because the killers were untrained: they would hack at an animals’ necks many times, causing prolonged excruciating suffering.
They point out that it takes up to 25 sword attacks to kill a buffalo.
Last September, an Indian court banned the transport of animals across the border for sacrifice, which led to a drop of around 70 percent in numbers slaughtered.
The Nepalese Hindu Forum UK and the Hindu Council UK both opposed the festival. The council backed Lumley in handing a 75,000-name petition to the Nepalese embassy last year.
Animal Welfare Network Nepal also said there was much work to be done to ensure devotees adopted new ways of taking part in the festival.
Images: AFP/Getty/ Gurkha Justice Campaign / Flickr