“There is no other no other culture on earth that worships a woman as a goddess. And has gone to lengths, to make her happy, satisfy her with whatever means a man could imagine. Honoring her, doing little things, like this fair to keep her happy, may be to create another excuse to celebrate, however irrational it may be. Because you see, someone told me on this journey, that if in a family, a woman is happy everything will be favourable. Our goddess needs to happy, at any cost possible”
GADHIMAI FAIR : A Journey through the culture of Nepal
A sparrow woke us up. After travelling for three days overland, from Delhi to Kathmandu; changing buses including sharing a seat for seven hours with a goat. Through the night, travelling in a time travel bus I was transported from a civil society to a town living thirty years back. A town darkened by the moonless night, wearing a layer of fog only dissected by the headlight of a second world war Mercedes truck. Few 8-seater carriers waiting for more people to arrive. In that cold morning the only noise that travelled was their engines running. All were quiet. No body talked. It was freezing, also people were half asleep under their blankets. Few looking straight into nothingness, like tamed intoxicated spirits. My journey to Kalliya had started. I will be walking between villages for next eleven days awaiting for a civilisation celebrating madness.
Even before the fair would commence, many countries asked the Nepal government to stop the killings. India banned animals coming from its country crossing over to Nepal- a big move as the majority of people coming to the fair come from Bihar, India. Under severe international pressure It was an inherent feeling all along this journey that something is ought to happen and killings will not take place this time.
I took my voice recorder, batteries, camera and got ready for another long day.
It has already been five days since I am here but never was the road this crowded as it is today. Something became of this left alone town overnight. It has swelled. Various horns crying, motorbikes running amok; cars, jeeps have transformed into taxis and buses without a roof or headlights, engines that are repaired to last another 14 days to make some money out of transporting crores of people about to arrive. Everything moving or still is filled with people so many all along the road going to the festival. Trucks, tractors, buses filled like overloaded moving houses with black either colorful heads. People spitting like leaking taps. Cycles, bikes, bull-carts manoeuvring thousands of people carrying water buffaloes, sheep, goats, pigs, pigeons, ducks, hens on their backs or in front. Some have tied them upside down on their cycles, few women were seen hiding them under shawls, varied smells every ten steps. I was awed. An army of fast and slow moving men, women, children and various animals walking along the river going towards the fair. Many have travelled on foot all night, somehow carrying their offerings hideously in trucks and tractors through the villages that can’t be guarded.
It had rained two days ago. The monsoon river had accumulated a lot of mud along its banks. A cow that must be grazing on the sides slipped half down into the mud. Died struggling to come out of it. Feces all over proved her heart-rending struggle. The crows have eaten her eyes already.
Yesterday, I had taken time from mahant, the head priest of the temple board of directors. It is said that almost three centuries ago his great great and a few greats ago grandfather had a dream, which lead to unearthing of the goddess and since, this festival came into being. After an hour of conversation what he had to say on a probable ban that is doing the talks on the killings is summed up as this:
It’s a ritual, a tradition that our religion has given. And our religion is faith. We don’t follow no man or a book. We follow our ancestors, our civilisation is based upon beliefs that have come into being not yesterday but since thousands of years before any other commandment was available to follow. So many have gotten their wishes come true, Can’t anybody see? Administration fears revolt of the lacs of people who individually want to sacrifice their animal. All of them wished half a decade may be 10 or 20 years ago and now when they got what they wished for, they have come here to pay respects to the mother. They have all the right. Have we asked them to come? No. Did we ask them to start this? No. Who can dare stop them? Nobody would like to take the wrath of Gadhimai.
A newly made bamboo bridge has come up overnight on the river. Two days ago I had crossed it with my shoes in hand. The bridge is four feet above a slow moving narrow stream of water. A teenage girl closes her eyes in fear of falling, as she was crossing over. She clinches on to her brothers arm as her other hand carries a baby goat that has started crying out in pain. Young men of the local village are charging rupees 10/- to let people cross the bridge. Built on a river having ankle deep water that only fills in the monsoons. Majority of people choose to cross the stream through bridge paying for it, few walking through the stream with bigger animals. They will make at least twenty thousand rupees per day for next two weeks. Though they let me go for free through the bridge. A women eating at the roadside asks me for money to get her daughter married off.
After more than four miscarriages and two girls later, five years ago Sunita came here and asked for a boy. Her wish was granted. Her son who is two and half years old now has come along with her He is trying to find a place to piss in an open field quiet near to where I sat. On asking about her whereabouts she started crying. In between she said, I am coming from Darbhanga. It was very hard to cross the border as the army on the border was stopping anyone who is carrying goats. I had to hide my six-month-old bahadur under layers of shawls. He is named Lal bahadur by my husband; I had to carry him all night in my lap so that nobody catches. She had stopped in the field to let lal bahadur eat some grass probably for the last time before his registration gets done for the sacrifice. I further asked her what would she do after Lal bahadur’s sacrifice. I will take the meat back home as Prasad, family will eat it together.
Enormous crowd, all in all villages have come together to pay their respects from different parts of Nepal and India. Placing themselves in open fields spread. They are cooking, sleeping, eating, playing cards under trees, smoking weed, drinking, gambling behind bushes, inside their cars, or on tractors, under or over buses and trucks. This particular village is donating 250 male water buffaloes to give to the Gadhimai trust, as they said, just for the occasion.
It is said that animals can smell their death coming.
Looking into the eyes of the cattle being tied and pulled, one can see their unhappiness amidst the murmur and laughs of the people for whom this festival has come after five years. Forgetting their poverty, all have brought their moving homes to a halt, to enjoy this fair of a picnic. People are enjoying and dancing. Families are rejoicing their wait for a coming feast of the blood and flesh, of the ones they are feeding as of now. They have decorated and named their animals with a red cloth for their final journey.
It is a time for the local rural economy to blare.
Whomsoever can make up a stall- small, big, giving anything from peanuts to scorpion oil, masks of demons, gods and ghosts are selling. In plenty are the common commodities like bindis, sandals, plastic wares, kitchenware, ironware, and clothes.
Many restaurants were seen cooking eyes of a fish separately, meat of birds like duck and geese is in demand, their legs separately, Goat balls, fried sheep intestines to even centipedes. Rows of shops and shops are everywhere. Little cloth structures, as high as man. Inside, sitting wide-eyed in small town curiosity. White, yellow teeth in dark mouths.
They trust Gadhimai just like birds fly, like fish swim. Everybody seems to be enjoying and making money out of his or her presence. It has gotten hot. I walked ahead. There was a big mountain that organizers have built out of cardboard and wood. There were stairs to climb, 20 feet from where you can directly see Shiva- the god of death as they claim. A man on a mike laughed after every sentence as the girl beside him in a small skimpy clothes acted like she is getting horny with each laugh coming and going; meanwhile they coaxed people to go inside to experience god. The shop next to the Magic Mountain had a loud speaker with almost the similar frequency of sound, both of them mixing; yet you can hear any of them if you concentrated hard. The second sound asked people to pay respects to a five-legged two-mouthed cow. You had to touch her and wish for something while paying your respects in cash, if your wish comes from the heart, she would give milk. That attracted a lot of people. They charged twenty rupees each.
Outside saints of saints surrounded the temple. No families were allowed in their premises. On my walk to and fro i saw a yogi wearing god hanuman robe throughout dau for 14 hours standing on one leg for three continuous days. On the fourth evening i went to look for him at the same place. He was resting lying sideways with his eyes closed, right hand resting on his sides enjoying his weed. We paid him respects and asked him about his whereabouts. It takes me three hours to dress up my god Hanuman. He spoke less and smiled more, In the fading light, in between those noisy silences I felt mesmerised looking at him. I realized that he is starting to look like his deity. Lines have started to appear on him making him look like a monkey man, god Hanuman.
And surrounding him were millions of voices speaking over each other, hundreds of loud speakers in every direction. Going about in many innumerable murmurs, thousands of hands going up to the temple bells, no room was left for the pigeons to sit on the two layered temple roof now. I had not seen such faith, such unbinding unity flocking together in respect to the goddess. Last three days have seen 25 million people turning up for this event, every family carrying some life according to their wallet for the sacrifice.
“A family of 10 people was crying foul, yelling out in togetherness. We have made a grave mistake by voting Modi to power. All of us have come to our mother and how can we come empty handed, mother looks at us as if she is hungry and what good are her sons if they cannot provide what she needs. Modi has banned animals coming from India they said. Till a week ago we could get a buffalo for 1000/- but after the ban it is costing us 15 times more. How will our son survive if they don’t let the sacrifice happen? You will see he will pay for this soon. Gadhimai is powerful. She lives on blood. Security forces took our Khasi, our pada, and left us, they should have even taken us in. We are not dead, we are still living and that is our problem. They stopped us at the border. We should get back our animals. You should tell it to the government. We have walked 300-400 kilometers for days carrying our animals with us, hiding them in our bags. If we do not get our animals back we will never vote Modi again. He cannot be this cruel to the poor people of his country. He should have never stopped this. I had been coming to this festival for last 30 years and nobody ever stopped us. I don’t know what new happened this time. If they want to stop, why not stop Muslims from killing so many goats, they even don’t pray before killing, we are only giving it to our mother, why this discrimination.”
What do they wish mainly? I asked one of the members from the administration looking after the Gadhimai trust. They, I think 99 percent of the people wish for a child, a boy. Ma fulfills their wishes and then they come here with an offering. As the tradition goes, people promise to pay respects to the mother after their wish gets fulfilled. Just for a boy? I asked. Yes. What if it’s a girl? Well, then they wont come. They will probably come to wish again. They don’t sacrifice anything if a girl happens to the family.
Meanwhile, few people little ahead of me were talking among themselves. It has gone up to 20,000 rupees for a buffalo, impossible for a poor man to buy them. On the border CCTV cameras have been put up- I don’t know how can they do that, its not a lane you are talking about, how can they keep a tab on each person carrying any animal to Nepal? Nothing of this sort ever happened like before. Even media wala have come this time. Before I never saw anybody with camera. Where were they before? Everybody has taken birth in last 10 years. Kahan se ho bhai ? Dilli se. Aaur channel? Koi channel nai hai. Kitna milta hai? I walked off. Later that evening somebody told me that few people even tried to behead a few water buffalos on the border, as they couldn’t cross it with the animals they had bought there. But vigilance was tight and they were told to cut a small part of the ear of their animal and let the animal go.
With every human I meet, a new story surfaces and makes me even more helpless. Over twenty thousand buffalo’s heads will be all over the ground within the walls starting early morning tomorrow. With the thoughts alike I entered a teashop looking for a chair. I sat in front of two people who were talking among selves in Bhojpuri. Something I could understand from their conversation as I shouted for a tea to the far corner, it went like this; Last time when the fair happened a few people threw teargases in the field, I did not see it myself but my brother saw it. They rescued 250-300 buffalos from being killed like chickens. I can never forget the way my brother was telling me. You should have seen his expressions. My brother even saw snakes that were thrown by the saperas from the village nearby. They all were Muslims and because they couldn’t get meat last time they were all angry and that is why they did that. Though those snakes could not bite but it scared the hell out of animals. They both laughed for ten seconds and the same person resumed; I think snakes felt happy about the action; they must have come out in the open after years. Even this time no body will get to eat anything unless they cut it themselves. Every thing is supposed to go to China and Korea. The tender has already been passed, don’t you know? Nothing is going to get wasted this time. I sipped my tea. People were brave then. It never used to happen in a confined place, the holy sacrifice always happened in an open area, a large field. Anybody could see it. There was no secret. The other one said something for the first time. It will bring bad omen to everyone. Gadhimai will be very upset. They went quiet for some seconds grasping and nodding to each other’s view. I had finished my tea and was ferrying my hand onto my beard. I left soon afterwards.
Lights at night make things appear half hidden. Temple will not sleep tonight. There is no moon to look up to. It’s a dark night. People haven’t closed their shops but have closed their eyes. Sleeping weakly in their roadside made up cloth shops. I have never seen so many people running hand in hand towards a temple for twelve hours in a row. Not even an inch of space is left for another person to stand anywhere in the compound. A human river; a faith flowing incessantly, bowing, touching the walls, temple bells, throwing coconuts at the idol because nobody has time to break it on the floor, many of which have hit the four priests on chests or on the cricket helmets they have worn to save their heads, they have tied layers of clothes and hockey pads on their knees and legs with the holy red thread kalava.
Many are carrying pigeons in a bid to free them as soon as they will see their idol but even before that happens, many doves got crushed under lacs of feet. And whichever pigeon was freed, its wings were clipped. It could only fly till temple roof where sat a man who put them again into a plastic bag to sell them again. On their way out people touched the temple wall, railing, or any corner that has become a must, like the last touch of a lover but more intense than physical. I saw many people crying as they came in front of Gadhimai. Amongst all this pushing, calling, wrestling, women take off their bindis or some color off their forehead to put on the walls. Twelve feet high white wall has turned half red on the way down in last 6 hours.
Outside there were a few activists who were openly defying this sacrificial process. A young man has come from Kathmandu all alone with two banners to condemn the killings alone. But both his banners got stolen. A women activist from Kathmandu came here to peacefully protest against the killings. She lit 1000 wick lights and prayed for the well being and change of heart of the officials. She seemed little afraid and in a hurry to get back to her car when I tried to speak with her. “I had just spoken from the lost and found mike telling each and every person not to kill innocent animals in the name of religion. No goddess asks to kill anyone. People can offer many other things than an animal. We need people from all walks of life to condemn this. These people are making a business out of it. It all can be done without a bloodshed. Every animal counts. Its sad to learn that animals don’t matter in my country. Children learn from seeing. What would they be learning from this mass sacrifice? It just becomes a routine for them. What i did today, speaking out loud in the mike when all the business-men money is at stake. I am sure I would have felt very guilty all my life had i not done what I did today. But I need to run now. They are looking for me and anything can happen. I don’t want to create any bad experience for anyone.”
As she walked away I asked her if her act would change anything ? “It is important what is happening this time regardless the killings stop or not because you see at least for the first time ever it has been put into the ears of all the people who create this and all those who come. It’s buzzing and I see people are afraid, at least some are. Not that rich people who have come with bands and donating buffaloes in numbers care. It doesn’t matter to them but these voices were never there. There was no media and no body was hearing us. It’s just the first step towards a change. They know now that some day killings might well be stopped. If not now, but surely in the coming time. And that is important.” Have you been able to change anyone? I asked. She smiled, my parents, the family in which I am married to, they have not send any animal. The king of Nepal for the first time in the history has not send any animal. So Yes I think it’s a start, I think I have made a difference. She sat in her car, asked me my whereabouts, gave me her number and left.
Its midnight and water buffaloes are still arriving. Last registered count came down to 22000 buffaloes. Its double the amount from five years ago and still 90% of the buffaloes have come from India; even after the ban.
No buffalo went inside through that gate by their own will. It’s in their eyes that they know their fate. Some even arrived with trumpets and drums as they forcibly pull them to get through to the gates, after the registration. Many buffaloes lost their strength, consciousness upon arriving. Falling on the ground flat, probably rebelling in their own way just before entering the big made up slaughterhouse. Yet all got pushed, somehow or the other, even if it meant to carry them on bamboo sticks by at least four people just like they carry a human after death.
It is going to happen in few hours from now, the news came. I kept searching for those 18 men who will be heading the killings. They will be paid 5000/- rupees each to slaughter all day tomorrow.
After looking for long I found the only one who seemed interested to talk. He seemed composed to me, just like a grown boy but in third year of college. I was hoping to find some expression, something different on his and the faces now standing behind him. Probably Drunken Cruel faces I imagined. Or a kind of an attitude that might make me feel they are the bad guys, ones whom I can hate. But there was nothing. I was disappointed. He stated a few things that went like this; we are not allowed to kill more than 15 buffaloes at one go because it is said that after we behead that many we slowly start losing ourselves. The clarity between the happening and hallucination becomes thin. Kali starts entering our body with each head cut, the blood starts heating up inside and then the difference between a man, animal doesn’t matter. If we don’t stop we might start killing whomsoever comes our way, even our friends. I have license, my guru has given it to me. Gadhimai gave it to him. She is great and mighty. I am ready. Even though this is my first time but I am not afraid. I will kill the kids. My guru has told me that she is hungry for 5 years now. With folded hands and a smile on his face he asked me if he could go to eat something.https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?visual=true&url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F197746590&show_artwork=true&maxwidth=840&maxheight=1000&dnt=1
painting by Anuradha Upadhyay
Earlier that evening I went to see the people who had lost their families, children, loved ones in this massive turn out of a crowd at Lost and Found tent behind the Hanuman temple. Thousands of people standing in the pavilion crying out loud to get the only mike rotating to get a chance to call their lost loved ones. As I walked in front, to everyone, my voice recorder seemed to be the mike to speak into. Few even started calling out names without asking, and how can I not feel sad when I know it’s going nowhere, nobody can listen to them, and no body will come. How much I even tried telling them that this is not a mike, but I imagine they had to let those voices out somehow Mothers, elderly women anxiously looking, walking from one corner to other, waiting for their turn to come, to given a chance to call into the mike. It was heartbreaking.
I spoke to the Lost and Found Director of Gadhimai trust. “Around 11000 people have been found till now. It’s the biggest fair; around 30 million people have come. There are a few ngo’s that are working and helping us on lost and found cases. Individually many people have come to help to volunteer with us. It’s very hard to contain women and children. They shout, scream, and cry. It’s almost impossible to find if an elderly women or a child is lost. They don’t know the language and most children cannot express what they want to say or where have they come from. But we are trying our best, We are helped by FM Radio Nepal and Bihar. The people who are waiting and the ones who hope to be picked, come here. We give them tea, biscuits and water.”
It was late in the night and I was very tired. Sacrifice will be going to start in few hours. I found a place to rest for a while at a corner of a big tent filled with hundreds of sleeping bodies. It was freezing, just that seeing so many people sleeping together made it bearable. On the cold earth dry grass was put, I tried to sleep like many. It might have also looked like a mortuary. Yet some were playing cards and shouting out loud between moments as one wins a hand of money. New men kept coming finding their own sleeping spaces to get into the already packed lanes of sleeping men. These men were not the people who have wished for a boy or have come to sacrifice. They were people who have come from the local slaughterhouses. They have already booked how many tonnes of meat they will take after the killings. As the meat is considered sacred, it is sold at the highest prices in the market. They were all resting, drinking and few gambling. Bhojpuri album songs are blowing in their full volume. I imagine of the buffaloes inside that stadium as I lie. It’s their last night on earth. How they must be feeling at this time, in dark with an ever-growing frequency of a million voices coming in layers from outside, looking at each other and just waiting for the known.
I woke up within an hour. It was still dark. I walked out of the tent towards where thousands of people were standing; surrounding the Banyan tree, waiting impatiently, trying to get some sense as they look at the ongoing rituals from far. Me and a few other fellows from the media are allowed inside. All the killers who will be beheading sat on one side facing the tree. They all carried their weapons covered in cloth, some without it. All had put the tallest red dots on their foreheads starting from between the brows; many a times chanting the goddesses name and showing the weapon to the sky symbolising a show of strength. Every chant made the crowd boil and they repeated it with lacs of empty hands going up in the dark sky slowly turning blue.
In sometime every person will follow the head priest to the temple, the priest will carry deity being prayed under the tree right now, towards the temple where they will place the deity again on its shrine, digging a hole with the back of the trishul. They will put three eggs, murmur mantras fastly. Outside, the crowd is slowly feeling the nerves, it is growing impatient, and they are chanting and trying to break into the main premises of the temple pushing personals of security forces just to have a view of the newly placed goddess. Inside, over the eggs the trishul gets placed, main priest lets his hand free in the air and with the last scream of the goddesses’ name. The killings become official. I, priest along with few other people and security personnel’s run to take refuge behind the wall. Crowd starts running like individual mad bulls to have a look. The deity is placed for next five years till it will be repeated again.
On the other side far from the temple under the big tree, a buffalo, a pig, a sheep, a goat, two pigeons and a hen wait, soon they will be offered to the deity as the first blood as soon as the news of the killings will reach to the officials. Everyone seemed to be on the verge of breaking out. Crows were already up, excited in their cawing just like everybody else. They have started to take place anywhere they could, having the best view. It’s strange, nobody told them. They felt it, smelt it days ago. Strangely the pig is decided to be the first one slaughtered, the moment head priest pressed its mouth, and the air got filled with the first screeching voice leaving a void in my stomach, that helpless pang, Just then, I decided to walk back home.
But now to walk forward or backward wouldn’t change anything. The sight everywhere was alike. On every turn I saw someone cutting some animal, I saw intestines sprayed out on sheets, ground, chests wide open, heads with open mouths and different colored eyes put up like a tennis balls. In no time no space was left where blood was not spilled. It was a one-sided massacre.
Coming close to the river, I saw the bridge was broken from between. Yet more people were walking over it now without an inch of space between them. No body crossed it barefoot through the river anymore and nobody was there to ask for money. Red of the blood now floats above the water of the river. Innumerable various animals were being culled in one line at the banks of the river. It was like a grand film set. Each animal was trying to run just before it is caught and made to stand a certain way for the blade to go past his neck. One man went with full force on the neck of a buffalo, somehow animal moved a little and the weapon half cut open his back, buffalo started screaming, fell down in pain, running where he lied, legs towards sky but he couldn’t move an inch. The man went again for the neck; his blow seemed vulnerable this time, under-confident and still could not cut through the neck. It made the man reckless. Stoned, his children were watching. In rage or shame the man went wild, on his knees he went to halal the remaining part of its neck, bystanders came and told him not to do so as its not permissible in Hinduism. He, then stood took another aim and gave blows to the neck so many that the last few blows made pieces of flesh fly towards where my camera was hanging. His daughter’s hand on her mouth, she started walking crossing the river. She fell unconsciously after sometime.
It’s been four and half hours that I am maneuvering my way back home. Millions of people are still coming and going. There was no place to walk apart from being one in the crowd. More than Bodies one had to look for the land to put your feet. It’s been 6 hours since the killings started. It will still go on for another 6 hours. I distracted myself by speaking into my voice recorder. God knows how many more will be killed. Headless bodies or just the heads hanging on shoulders taken away towards homes. It’s a feast. All seem partying like a big happy family. All are carrying weapons as if they were born with it having a third arm. Going home was never this dreadful. Walking and forced to watch each and every thing happening around you.
When It got too much for me to see and smell the blood i took a detour away from the main lane along the fields to watch over, and I found a baby buffalo sitting alone, left all by himself, saved from being one along with many, living, breathing, looking at the masses going by.
The last image of the fair before batteries, heart and my power to see and resist went out. This image came out to be my personal saviour as i saw life. Though people had cut his ear so as if anyone else wants to take him to sacrifice, they see the cut and leave him be as goddess doesn’t approve a body thats not complete.
He was in pain, irritated and didn’t allow me to come near him. I let him be. And slowly walked away, away from the crowd.
The Journey back home
Later while crossing the border on the other side, hundreds of animals were seen strolling, bearing a cut or two.
This sketch came about on the very long bus rides that commenced after entering back to the Indian side in Raxaul from the Nepali Bihar Birganj to Sugauli. A 10 hour lazy train from sugauli to gorakhpur at night. Some parts in a bus from Gorakhpur to Faizabad, from there to Kesarbagh in Lucknow and further 16 hour bus ride to Delhi where shukla jee, the driver and himself the conductor, made sure that all the passengers eat the best samosa with kacche aam ki chutney, Kachaori poori Sabzi, chai, Petha, oranges on various stops, though he didn’t care much where we eat our food. On a Sunday he recited Hanuman Katha and Chalisa twenty times half an hour long- less in afternoon most in the night so as no body sleeps and if they do Ram and Hanuman should always be around them.
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RIVER OF HEADS was first exhibited at Max Muller via PHOTO KATHMANDU and later published in PIX : A book of Visual Anthology from Nepal in 2016.
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