Elephant Polo: the Rise and Fall of a Hotel in Nepal
by Cas de Stoppelaar
Translated from the original Dutch by Adriaan Verheul
Vajra Book Shop, 2007: http://www.elephantpolonovel.com/
296 pages, paperback & audiobook
Religions In Nepal (2013 edition)
by Trilok Chandra Majupuria & Rohit Kumar (Majupuria)
Modern Printing Press, Kantipath, Kathmandu, Nepal
401 pages, paperback.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Like the hero of his autobiographical novel Elephant Polo, author Cas de Stoppelaar, Consul General of Nepal to the Netherlands, arrived in Nepal in 1970 as an itinerant biologist. Like his hero, de Stoppelaar returned to build the most renowned hotel in Nepal: in real life, The Summit, opened in 1980. Situated on a Patan hillside overlooking Kathmandu, The Summit was originally near the center of a rural village. It is now within walking distance of the heart of the Kathmandu metropolis.
But Elephant Polo, sold as “the untrue story of The Summit,” is much more than either a thinly fictionalized autobiography, constructed with considerable literary skill, or the history of a hotel. Elephant Polo is also a documentary of the cultural transition of Nepal occurring from the arrival of hippies and trekkers in the 1970s, through the Maoist insurrection and implosion of the hereditary monarchy in the early 21st century, to the present phase of recovery, reconciliation, and struggling into the modern world.
There is little in Elephant Polo about either elephants or the game of elephant polo, which is played in only one chapter. That chapter emphasizes, however, that while elephant polo players imagine themselves to be in control of the elephants, the elephants actually do what they want. The elephant polo players’ illusion of being in control becomes a metaphor for the entire experience of westerners in their attempts to transform Nepalese culture.
Much more of Elephant Polo concerns animal sacrifice. Entitled “Brahma,” “Vishnu,” and “Shiva,” after the Hindu dieties most worshipped in Nepal, the three sections of Elephant Polo loosely parallel the major myths associated with each diety, and each include detailed descriptions of sacrificial ceremonies.
None occur in a temple. Each resembles the slaughters of animals which until a few generations ago typically preceded American ceremonial occasions such as Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Fourth of July picnics.
Though the killing is ritualized, any distinction between sacrifice and slaughter for consumption is blurred. Initially shocked by sacrifice, struggling to understand it, de Stoppelaar’s alter ego comes to realize that sacrificed animals are almost the only meat that the Nepalese consume.
As the affluence of Nepal has increased, the equation of sacrifice with slaughter for consumption is now much less exact than when de Stoppelaar arrived: several hundred times more animals are slaughtered now than are killed in temples. But butcher shops not associated with temples are still a rarity. The several poultry farms I visited on the outskirts of Kathmandu in January 2014, though the largest in the area, kept barely more birds than many U.S. hobbyists. About 75% of the birds were leghorns, raised for sale mostly to restaurants; 25% were colorful local breeds meant for sacrifice. The fish farm and pig farm I visited were proportionally no bigger.
I observed sacrifice at the Dakshin Kali temple south of Kathmandu, reputedly the largest scene of sacrifice in the Kathmandu valley, on a Saturday morning, the peak time for killing. The Dakshin Kali temple was favored by former King Gyanendra, the last ruler of the Nepalese monarchy.
Standing barely out of blood-spurting range, I saw that the goats and chickens were killed in the much the same manner as animals at rural butcher shops throughout the developing world.
While watching sacrifice or slaughter of any sort is always grim, in fairness I have seen far worse, especially in undercover videos of U.S. slaughterhouses obtained by investigators for animal advocacy groups.
The killing I witnessed in Nepal was done amid extensive ceremonial trappings, but the ceremonies were not allowed to delay the procedures long enough for most of the animals to become visibly or audibly aware of what was happening. The priests and slaughtermen focused on efficiently dispatching and dismembering the animals and selling their remains. (And vastly more coconuts were sacrificed than animals, along with various other vegetables.)
Not expecting Elephant Polo to be as informative about Nepalese animal sacrifice as it proved to be, I bought Religions In Nepal specifically to obtain information and perspective about sacrifice. The perspective it provided was rather different from what I had expected. Authors Trilok Chandra Majupuria and Rohit Kuman (Majupuria), a father-and-son team, are respectively a retired Tribuhavan University professor and a fulltime author and lecturer about religious history and teachings. Both turned to researching and writing about religion after obtaining scientific educations.
Religions In Nepal includes chapters on Hindu animal sacrifice and the ancient practices of human sacrifice. There are also chapters on the major variants of Hinduism practiced in Nepal, for several of which animal sacrifice is a central rite. But most of Religions In Nepal emphasizes other aspects of Nepalese religion. Nearly half the book concerns Buddhism, which originated in southern Nepal, apparently about 200 years before spreading into modern India.
Nowhere in Religions In Nepal is there even one word about the Bara regional goddess Gadhi Mai or Gadhimai sacrificial massacres conducted in 2004 and 2009 at the village of Bariyarpur in her purported honor.
Though the Gadhimai sacrifice has been billed as a tradition originating at times ranging from circa 1200 to 1760, and as the largest animal sacrifice in the Hindu world, the Majupurias make no mention of it, nor of anything similar, while listing many other festivals that feature sacrifice.
(See also Seeking the truth of the Gadhi Mai sacrificial slaughter, and The origin of the Gadhi Mai sacrifice.)