Gadhimai Mela - The Largest Sacrifice

Posted by Enrico Fabian • Friday, June 18. 2010 • Category: People and Places
In the last quarter of 2009, the famous actor and animal rights activist Brigit Bardot wrote a letter to the president of Nepal, urging him to intervene in the planning of an upcoming religious festival. Her request was received, but shunned by the president; the Gadhimai Mela, held every five years, would again go on as it had for centuries. It is considered the biggest single animal sacrifice on our planet. The festival’s name, Gadhimai, comes from a goddess whose temple is situated in a vast complex near a tiny village in Nepal not far from the Indian border.

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A sister of the goddess Kali, Gadhimai is supposed to have the power to fulfil wishes and augur good luck and prosperity. As in most parts of life, nothing comes for free and a certain duty has to be fulfilled to receive something in return. The duty in this case is the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of animals.

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The devotees arrive days or even weeks before the main day of the mela (Hindi for festival) and begin setting up their small tents on the harvested paddy fields. They bring with them their essentials and the sacrificial animals, such as pigeons, goats, sheep, pigs and buffaloes. These animals are meant for one purpose only, to be sacrificed to the goddess Gadhimai. Most of the families covered vast distances to take part in this religious occasion and so thousands of believers crossed the Indian border into Nepal to participate in this rare mela. The animals they brought along not only cause a logistical problem, but also a financial one. Most of the families are poor and cannot even afford to spend a single Rupee carelessly. Some of them put themselves into high debts just to buy an animal and thus be able to contribute to the sacrifice.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

During the days before the main sacrifice, hundreds of thousands of people threw pigeons on the pagoda-style roof of a temple next to the goddesses’ shrine. The pigeons piled up until all of the three temple canopies bulged with pulsating masses of feathers. The dead ones were lying beneath the living. After this, devotees rang huge copper bells, offered Prasada (Hindi for a sacred gift) and received blessings from the goddess.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

Buffaloes are considered the most valuable offering to the goddess and thousands were brought along by the pilgrims. The buffaloes were pent-up in a compound the size of two football fields, surrounded by a brick wall – unaware of their destiny, their inescapable fate. Many of the buffaloes, already weakened by the long journey that lay behind them, died from exhaustion, starvation or dehydration. The compound did not offer sufficient shade, water or food for them.

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The 24th of November 2009 was the day when the buffaloes should face their final destiny. The early morning hours covered the butchers in thick fog as they carried their razorblade sharp knives from a small tree temple to Gadhimai’s shrine and back, receiving the blessings for the upcoming.

During the opening ceremony at the tree temple the main priest sacrificed two pigeons, a goat, a sheep and a field rat by cutting off their heads. As the first buffalo head was separated from the animal’s body by a powerful whip with the blade, thousands of spectators cheered and threw their hands into the air. Seven more were sacrificed and devotees elbowed their way through the masses to tip their forefinger into the fresh blood, flowing out of the still twitching bodies.

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After this the butchers forced their way through the vast pile of people, who were left behind after the rusty metal doors to the buffalo compound got closed, leaving the spectators outside.

The ones who had entered the compound were the ones responsible for fulfilling the purpose of the donated buffaloes. The mela committee selected them in advance because of their knowledge in killing animals in a proper and fast way, by chopping of their heads, ideally with a single powerful blade whip.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

What happened in the next ten hours was an indescribable sight of around 150 men chopping of the heads of around 15,000 buffaloes. Minute by minute, one after the other, the buffaloes collapsed as their head was severed from their body. Some of the men carrying out this duty were congratulating each other for the clean execution, cheerful about what they had done.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

At the end of the day, the dried out soil of the compound was blood red, soaked with all the fluids flowing out of the dead animals’ bodies. Amongst them the butchers carried their blood dripping blades in search for the last buffaloes alive; none of them should be forgotten. To please the mighty goddess Gadhimai, in the hopes of getting their prayers fulfilled, the buffalo heads would later be buried in front of the tree temple where the whole procession initially started.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

While the sacrifice of the buffaloes wasn’t a proper public sight, the next day reserved for the sacrifice of goats, sheep and pigs brought something different. All over the temple complex and especially in front of Gadhimai’s shrine countless smaller animals were brought to death in the same way the buffaloes had been, by decapitation. The whole area took the appearance of a bizarre, colourful and overly crowded slaughterhouse. People were dancing and singing, priests gave their blessings to the devotees, people took a bath in the nearby lake and police officers tried to keep the huge amount of pilgrims under control.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

On the other side of the complex, people from the nearby villages started to take whatever was still usable from the buffaloes, whose dead bodies had been lying in the sun since almost a day. The fume rising from the dead animal bodies was overwhelming but nobody seemed to be overly bothered by it. Cutting their way through the bloated corpses they took the meat for drying in the open, as well as the skin for producing leather.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com)

Within the main days of the mela at least 200,000 animals had been sacrificed and the demands of the goddess Gadhimai had been fulfilled. The devotees broke down their temporary homes and started their journey back home, confidently that their wishes and prayers would be heard.

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Please also visit www.enrico-fabian.com and blog.enrico-fabian.com to see more detailed photo essays on the Gadhimai Mela and learn about other projects I have done.
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