What was the actual tradition?
KATHMANDU––Animal sacrifice clearly has been practiced at Bariyarpur in honor of the local goddess Gadhi Mai for centuries, even if not in anything like the numbers of recent years. But what was the actual tradition?
Anil Bhanot, general secretary of the United Kingdom Hindu Council, offered the best-known version of the origin of the Gadhi Mai festival in a November 2009 guest column for The Guardian.
“The history of this bloodthirsty event began,” Bhanot wrote, “when Bhagwan Chaudhary, a feudal landlord, was imprisoned in Makwanpur about 260 years ago. He dreamed that all his problems would be solved if he made a blood sacrifice to Gadhi Mai. Immediately upon his release from prison he took counsel from the local village healer. Apparently then a light appeared in an earthenware jar, and the gory sacrifice began.”
Not always so bloody, despite bloody origins
But in “The Five-Year Animal Sacrifice: On the trail of the largest animal sacrifice-festival in the world,” ECS Nepal writer Ravi M. Singh in September 2013 alleged that the origins of the Gadhi Mai festival go back much farther, and hinted that it was not always so bloody, despite bloody origins.
At the Gadhi Mai temple complex, Singh found, the spot said to have been where Gadhi Mai lived in Bariyarpur is marked by “a big stone used for breaking open coconuts.”
The sacrificial festival history, Singh wrote, “dates back some 900 years to a simple god-fearing and benevolent resident of Bariyarpur named Bhagwan Chaudhary. One day a theft took place at his house, but the thieves were caught red-handed and paid with their lives at the hands of the enraged villagers.
Fearing that his fellow villagers would be convicted [of murder], Bhagwan Chaudhary took the blame upon himself and was sent to Nakkhu jail in Kathmandu.
One night Gadhi, the goddess of Makwanpur, appeared in his dream and kept appearing on subsequent nights asking him to take her to Bariyarpur and the scene of the crime. The goddess’s occult powers freed Bhagwan Chaudhary from the jailhouse. A pinch of soil from her feet applied to his turban enabled him free passage back to his village.
“In return, Gadhi Mai asked him to sacrifice five humans each year. Bhagwan Chaudhary magnanimously offered his own life, saying he would be unable to perform human sacrifice. Instead, he vowed a quintuple sacrifice every five years. It would include a rat, a pig, a rooster, a goat, and a water buffalo.
“This ritual failed, however, as children and youngsters of Bariyarpur suddenly took ill and started dying. Bhagwan Chaudhary again made an appeal to Gadhi Mai and was directed by the goddess to offer a human sacrifice. The hunt began for a human, but to no avail. Fortunately, a villager from Simri from neighboring Rautahat district came to the rescue and offered to shed five drops of blood from his body as sacrifice, instead of his life. That saved the village from calamity.”
Individual animals of five species are commonly sacrificed together in Nepal, as is a person ritually shedding five drops of blood. Coconuts, however, are sacrificed hundreds of times more often than animals, even at the Dakshin Kali temple near Kathmandu, for six centuries the most prominent sacrificial site in the country.
That the place where Gadhi Mai supposedly lived is marked with a coconut stone instead of an altar suggests that coconut sacrifice was historically the primary manner in which she was worshipped.
(See also Seeking the truth of the Gadhi Mai sacrificial slaughter, and Books shed light on sacrifice in Nepal.)