Thu 1st Jan 1970Sacrifice
Nepali villages are beautiful in the October sun, and this one is no exception. The whole family is together: sons visiting from Kathmandu, older relatives across from nearby villages. Everyone is smiling and gossiping. And in the corner of the yard in front of the house two goats stand tethered, chewing at the leaves within reach.
It's Dashain, the biggest festival of the Nepali year. Over two weeks families get together to celebrate the victory of the Hindu Goddess Durga - the divine mother - over the demons. Presents are given, along with innumerable blessings, and most Nepali's indulge in a new set of clothes. On the main day of the celebration, Dashami, the strict hierarchy of the traditional household is in full view. Every family member gives a special tikka to those lower in the household status stakes: older to younger; males to females. The usual red dye is mixed with grains of rice, with the result that multiple tikkas form a lumpy unstable mass on the foreheads of the youngest. Those who don't used hair gel to stabilise it have scarlet grains falling from their faces for the rest of the day. Barley shoots, grown from seeds planted on the first day of the festival, are tucked behind everyone's ear. It's Nepal's equivalent of Christmas Day, and the only time of the year in this mainly Hindu country that everyone eats meat.
It's a bad time of year for goats, but the ones tethered in the front yard are too young and stupid to know it. Even when the circle is painted in red dye of the ground, with the Khukuri knife that has been blessed by the father of the household earlier in the morning placed next to it, they carry on chewing, ears flopping, eyes darting this way and that in search of another juicy shoot.
But there's no more time for grazing. Laughing and joking, one of the young men holds the tether whilst the other sprinkles it with water to cleanse it. Drops are sprayed across its back, and then flicked into its mouth, and again onto its backside. Complaining, the goat is brought into the circle. Still laughing, each man grabs two legs and splays them apart, whilst the nervous animal is distracted with a sheaf of rice.
One man performs the sacrifices for the village. His qualification, as far as I can tell, is that he's good at it. The animal needs to be killed with one clean blow - any more and the sacrifice is unlucky. He's standing in the yard now, with the knife raised above his head. The little girl next to me covers her eyes with her hands. There's no countdown, no ceremony - just an explosion of blood as the knife flashes down. The head and body lie separated, both twitching as the young men rush to collect the blood in a stainless steel dish.
To my eyes it seems unreal, as though the fabric of normality has been briefly been torn. The sun is still shining, the village children are still shouting across the rice fields, and the little girl next to me uncovers her eyes and walks over to the head, pulling back the eyelid to see if the goat can still see her. It can't, so she leaves it and goes off to play.
In Kathmandu, at the heart of the celebration, with royalty and dignitaries gracing the occasion, mass sacrifices of over a hundred animals at a time are common. Ducks, chickens, buffalo, and of course the unlucky goats. Blood soaks the streets. It's easy to understand, after the wrenching feeling that comes at the moment the knife slices down, to understand why some Westerners don't want to watch. After all, it's something few of us ever see. But it's harder to understand those who denounce the sacrifices as "bloodthirsty" and "barbaric" yet then trek back to McDonalds at home (Nepal remains one of the world's few McDonalds-free zones). And it makes me wonder: what terrible Gods are we trying to propitiate in our own cavernous, efficient, automated temples? Twenty-four hours a day, year after year, an endless line of living, breathing animals queue to have their throats slit by the robot knife, or wait for the steel bolt to fire into their brains, regular, like a giant's heartbeat. A never-ending festival, with no celebrations.