by Merritt Clifton
KATHMANDU, WASHINGTON D.C.––Even by the frequently hyperbolic standards of activist alerts and fundraising appeals, an alert distributed on October 2, 2014 by Humane Society International chief executive Andrew Rowan was grossly exaggerated.
“Next month,” Rowan wrote, “the Gadhi Mai Festival will take place at a temple in southern Nepal. The two-day event happens every five years – and it’s the world’s largest sacrifice of animals.”
In truth it isn’t.
In truth, the Gadhi Mai sacrifice every five years kills a lot of animals, but not nearly as many as are killed at other sacrificial events, chiefly in India.
Most of the animals killed for Gadhi Mai are buffalo: circa 2,500. About twice as many buffalo are killed for Gadhi Mai as the number of bulls killed in 2012 in Spanish bull rings.
Yet here in the U.S., Tyson Inc. kills about 2,600 steers per day — about the same number of bovines killed at the Gadhi Mai sacrifice –– and sustains that killing pace 365 days per year.
Over a five-year time frame the score is Tyson, 949,000; the Gadhimai sacrifice and Spanish bullfighting, combined, 9,000.
Thus a reduction of just 1% in U.S. beef consumption would spare as much animal suffering as the total abolition of both the Gadhi Mai animal sacrifice and Spanish corrida.
Continued Rowan, “In just weeks, more than 500,000 water buffalo, pigs, goats, chickens, pigeons and even mice will be slaughtered en masse by inexperienced people –– tortured, beaten and in some cases, beheaded with all manner of weapons, causing a slow, painful death. The goal: pleasing Gadhi Mai, the goddess of power.”
Practically all of the animals killed for Gadhi Mai will be beheaded. But there is not the slightest credible evidence from any source to support the allegation that thousands of any species other than buffalo are killed for Gadhi Mai, or ever have been, or ever could be, given the limitations of the location, the time allocated for the killing, and the economic resources of the region.
Sometimes an atrocity of shocking magnitude turns out to be more of a brazen scam. And that can be good news, since scams involving cruelty tend to be much more easily ended than atrocities of enormous scale with authentically deep cultural roots.
Andrew Rowan is far from the first person to have been flummoxed by grossly inflated numbers attached to the Gadhi Mai sacrifice by both defenders and opponents of the festival. I believed those numbers too––until I went to Nepal in January 2014 and saw for myself, first hand, the paucity of evidence. In particular, I personally counted each and every animal shown in videos of the Gadhi Mai sacrifices, several times, and then had a panel of 10 prominent animal advocates do their own counts at the 2014 Asia for Animals conference had in Singapore. None produced tallies which could be credibly projected to even a hundreth of the “500,000” claim.
“The largest and most overtly cruel and wasteful public slaughter anywhere,” I wrote in May/June 2013, “is the Gadhi Mai sacrificial orgy held every five years in honor of a local Hindu goddess at Bariyarpur, a Nepalese village near the border of Bihar state, India. About a quarter of a million animals were killed at Bariyarpur in 2009, 40% of the total killed throughout Saudi Arabia at the Feast of Atonement, and 12% of the estimated total killed worldwide.”
The Feast of Atonement slaughter has been declining, especially relative to the numbers of Muslims, for more than 30 years, but after 1,400 years of practice is unlikely to disappear within the next several generations.
Critical assessment, however, suggests that contrary to my May/June 2013 editorial statements, which were based on the best information available at the time, the Gadhi Mai sacrifice may be about 99% myth, mostly of surprisingly recent origin. The remaining 1%, the ritual killing of perhaps 2,500 animals, might have little depth of support if the economic realities of it are exposed.
Nepalese organizers appear to have a very good chance of reducing the killing this year to a fraction of the 2,500––but only if they focus on the real issues, instead of the fictions.
Among the first written accounts of the Gadhi Mai sacrifice to reach the global animal advocacy community came from Chinny Krishna of Chennai, India. Chief executive of the Blue Cross of India from 1964 to 2013, and a longtime member of the Animal Welfare Board of India, Krishna had visited Nepal in early 2001 with his wife Nanditha, an anthropologist who heads the C.P. Ramaswami Trust.
“About two years ago,” Krishna e-mailed on January 12, 2002, “Mr. Golcha, an influential businessman in Kathmandu, promised to get me an audience with King Birendra of Nepal. Nanditha and I wanted to meet him to request him to stop the traditional (maybe a few hundred years old) practice of slaughtering up to 5,000 buffaloes on a lake bed at Birgung village in Baryarpur District, just north of Kathmandu. This sacrifice takes place every five years and it was reported that the entire lake gets so polluted by the blood of the cattle that absolutely nothing can live in the water. It takes almost five years for the lake to regenerate, by which time it is sacrifice time again.”
“When we reached Kathmandu,” Krishna continued, “the Golchas, who were unaware of why I wanted to meet King Birendra, were shocked on learning the reason for my visit. They explained that King Birendra is regarded as an avatar of god, and that it would be blasphemous to talk to him about stopping the sacrifice. I persisted and requested Mr. Golcha to please arrange the meeting. For over a week we waited for a phone call from him, leaving messages for him every few hours. To no avail.”
The details as Chinny Krishna had received them were geographically off. Birgung is a small city on the border between Nepal and Bihar, well south of Kathmandu; but the main road to Baryarpur, a village of about 7,500 people, runs from Birgung.
No written records
The mass sacrifice of thousands of buffalo and tens of thousands of smaller animals and birds purportedly had last been held in 1999, yet to this day no contemporary press accounts of it have surfaced, nor has any published record been found of the Baryarpur sacrifice in earlier years. I have been unable to find any published reference to it previous to 2001 at NewsLibrary.com, NewspaperArchive.com, the Google newspaper archive, and in the archives of The New York Times. Neither is there even one word about Gadhi Mai or the Gadhi Mai sacrifices in the 400-page reference book Religions In Nepal, by Trilok Chandra Majupuria and his son Rojit Kumar (see the ANIMALS 24-7 review), although they do list many other sacrificial festivals.
Some recent media coverage of outbreaks of the livestock disease peste des petits ruminants in Nepal sometimes mention that an outbreak in 1995 was associated with the Gadhi Mai festival. But the earliest occurrence of this statement that I can find appears to be from an Indo-Asia News Service report published on November 1, 2009: “During the 1995 fair, PPR entered Nepal and created havoc, said Prabhakar Pathak, director-general at the state department of animal livestock services.”
The archives of the International Society for Infectious Disease, the most extensive online library about zoonotic disease outbreaks worldwide, include nothing about this alleged outbreak. Veterinary literature documents that PPR was first suspected in Nepal as early as 1993-1995, but was not positively identified until 2007. Only then did one scientific review vaguely link PPR in Nepal and nearby nations to the “tradition of animal sacrifice,” but not specifically to any one sacrificial occasion or site.
Except for Chinny Krishna’s recollection that he had heard of the Gadhi Mai sacrifice “about two years ago” as of January 2002, and had sought unsuccessfully to meet with King Birendra to try to stop it, which is dated by the mention of Birendra, there seems to be no unequivocal documentation of the sacrifice predating the June 2001 ascent of King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Dev to the Nepalese throne. A frequent participant in animal sacrifice on a small scale at the Dakshin Kali temple south of Kathmandu, Gyanendra as a four-year-old stood in briefly as king in 1950-1951, while his grandfather Tribuhavan was temporarily in exile in India during political unrest. Appointed chair of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation in 1982, serving also as chief representative of the World Wildlife Fund in Nepal, Gyanendra resigned those positions to become king again after Prince Dipendra on June 1, 2001 massacred Birendra and eight other members of the royal family. Dipendra––who was next in line to succeed Birendra––then shot himself.
Nepal was at the time five years into a decade-long civil war against Maoist insurgents. The war would end with the dissolution of the hereditary monarchy in 2006. An unpopular king from the beginning of his second reign, Gyanendra courted support from Nepalese nationalists and social conservatives in part by presiding over public sacrifices.
Warned by then-Indian minister for animal welfare Maneka Gandhi that sacrificing animals in India might be illegal, Gyandendra on June 27, 2002 defiantly participated in sacrificing a buffalo, a goat, a sheep, a duck, and a pigeon at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, India. This made headlines in India, Nepal, and internationally, with no mention of Gyanendra having previously participated in any much larger sacrifices.
The report that appears to have established the prevailing image of the Gadhi Mai sacrifice was distributed on December 18, 2004 by the Nepalese online news portal eKantipur and published in the Kantipur Group newspapers Kantipur and Kathmandu Post. The five-sentence account read in full:
“Their Majesties King Gyanendra and Queen Komal offered worship at the Gadhimai Shrine at Bariyarpur Saturday morning. Their Majesties also granted group audience to devotees who had come for the religious festival. The religious fair is taking place near the Pasaha River, some 7 kilometers from the district headquarters of Kalaiya. The festival, which is said to see the largest amount of animal sacrifice in the world, takes place in each five years. Some 50,000 livestock are also expected to be sacrificed at the fair.”
There appears to have been no other contemporary coverage, at least published in English-language media, and no photography or video of the event. Neither have unequivocal first-hand accounts appeared since.
A December 19, 2004 guest column for The Nation Weekly magazine of Kathmandu, by sacrifice opponent Jagdish Arya, written before the 2004 Gadhi Mai festival but published almost a month afterward, is widely believed to include first-hand observations from 1999. Citing members of the sacrifice organizing committee, Arya claimed that 18,000 buffalo were killed in 1999. He projected that 25,000 buffalo would be sacrificed in 2004.
Yet nowhere did Arya actually state that he personally saw what he described, or verified the figures he was given. Arya acknowledged that no one counted the smaller animals who were killed, though he said this was because the numbers were so large.
Gyanendra, meanwhile, in May 2008 made headlines, two years after he was deposed as king, by attending the sacrifices of a duck, chicken, lamb, goat, and buffalo at the Dakshin Kali temple. As in 2002, Agence France-Press and Indian coverage made no mention that Gyanendra had earlier participated in much larger sacrifices.
Opposition to Gadhi Mai sacrifice rose in 2009
Efforts to end the Gadhi Mai sacrifice escalated in 2009, boosted by statements of support from animal advocate Pramada Shah, who was formerly married to Ashish Shah, Gyanendra’s nephew.
“Together with Nepali colleagues I witnessed the festival in 2009,” wrote Dutch journalist Lucia de Vries, a resident of Nepal since 1992 who is also volunteer chief administrator of Animal Nepal and the Godivari Donkey Sanctuary. “The buffaloes paid for by the government,” reportedly 108 head, “were inside a compound, but all other animals were killed randomly within a three-to-five-kilometer radius around the temple. As most of the area consists of fields and hardly any movement was possible, the campaigners were unable to get a good insight into the numbers. We also did not focus on statistics. I think we were all in a state of shock.”
Attending with de Vries and the others were Animal Welfare Network Nepal president Manoj Gautam, who doubles as executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute Nepal, and volunteer Santosh Khatiwada. Gautam and Khatiwada extensively videotaped the proceedings, then turned the video into a six-minute documentary widely viewed on YouTube. They did not use the video to quantify the numbers of animals and people actually involved in the Gadhi Mai sacrifices, however, until the first day of the 2014 Asia for Animals conference in Singapore.
Taranath Gautam, identified as “the top government official in the area,” told Associated Press that “more than 200,000 people had come for the ceremony in Bariyapur. Some brought their own animals to sacrifice.”
Upping the ante twentyfold, Bariyarpur resident Manoj Chaudhary told ECS Nepal writer Ravi M. Singh that attendance “crossed the five million mark, out of which almost 75% came from bordering towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India.”
Head priest Shiva Chaudhary Tharu told Singh that “Upwards of 200,000 animals and birds were slaughtered en masse, including 105 buffalo killed by farmer Raman Thakur, of Sitamadi, India.
“As dawn broke,” reported Guardian correspondent Olivia Lang, who unlike Singh was actually in Bariyarpur to see the killing, “the fair officially opened with the sacrifice of two rats, two pigeons, a pig, a lamb, and a rooster in the main temple. In the main event, 250 appointed residents with traditional kukri knives began their task of decapitating more than 10,000 buffalo.”
Deepesh Shrestha of Agence France-Presse reported that “250 sword-wielding butchers slaughtered around 20,000 buffalo, while the following day hundreds of thousands of people offered smaller animals to Gadhimai. Priests said at least 150,000 goats, roosters, ducks, and pigeons were sacrificed at the temple, and thousands more were killed in surrounding fields.”
“I slaughtered around 20 buffalo in 2004. This time I managed to behead about 70, bank clerk Kabir Jung Rana told Shrestha. Another participant, professional butcher Munna Bahadur Khadgi, told Shrestha he had killed 200 buffalo.
Neither Singh, Lang nor Shrestha appear to have asked whether any of the claims about the numbers of people present and animals killed were credible.
For example, 200,000 people would be a third of the population of the entire Bara region. Five million people would be twice the population of the entire 50-square-kilometer Kathmandu valley.
If 250 butchers killed 10,000 buffalo in the daylight available on one November day, they would have had to sustain a pace of five buffalo killed per hour, for an average of 40 killed apiece. U.S. commercial slaughterhouses did not kill cattle at that pace until the advent of mechanization.
If 150,000 smaller animals were killed at the temple, the pace of killing would have been 312 per minute. Fully mechanized American slaughterhouses even today kill only 140 chickens per minute, or 45 turkeys, with a proposal pending to increase the line speed to 175 chickens per minute, or 55 turkeys.
Could so many animals and people even fit into the sacrificial area, bearing in mind that the “three-to-five-kilometer radius around the temple” includes the entire village of Baryarpur?
A 3-kilometer radius around the temple would be 18,600 square meters. A five-kilometer radius would be 31,400 square meters.
The regional village population density is about 1,000 people per square kilometer, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Thus the village buildings would occupy about 7,500 square meters, leaving from 11,100 to 23,900 square meters for animals and visitors.
Livestock expert Temple Grandin of Colorado State University estimated that each buffalo would occupy about 20 square feet, equivalent to 1.84 square meters.
Even if none of the available space around Baryarpur was used by people and other animals, there would not be room enough within the maximum 5-kilometer radius for 10,000 buffalo.
“The locals report that the arena is two bighas of land,” Gautam said. “The bigha is a traditional land measurement unit, one bigha being 6,773 square meters. That makes it around 13,000 square meters where the buffaloes were concentrated,” space enough for 7,000––but only if nothing else shared the space and if it was packed solid with buffalo. Video of the 2009 Gadhi Mai sacrifice shows considerable open space around the buffalo and the spectators.
There are other indications of gross exaggeration of the numbers of animals killed at Bariyarpur in 2009 and earlier. For example, there is general agreement that up to 75% of the buffalo were brought from India. But the total number of buffalo imported into Nepal from India in 2009 was only 11,674, through 23 border crossings. Even if all of the buffalo sacrificed at Bariyarpur were smuggled across the relatively open border in the week preceding the Gadhi Mai festival, it is doubtful that the numbers could have exceeded 10% of the national total for the year.
Nepalese visitor data shows similar discrepancies. While 200,000 people were said to have attended the Gadhi Mai festival in 2009, with perhaps the majority coming from India, total visitor traffic to Nepal in 2009, by both air and overland routes, came to just 509,956 people, of whom only 130,634 came by road. Five thousand fewer visitors arrived by land routes during the month of November, when the Gadhi Mai festival was held, than during the month preceding.
If each of the 99 villages within the Bara region sent 500 people to Bariyarpur, a questionable proposition in view that Manoj Gautam said about half of the villages have hosted events in opposition to the Gadhi Mai festival, a crowd approaching 50,000 might have been possible––but only if they could find standing room among the buffalo.
So what exactly did happen at Bariyarpur in 2009?
Following a full-speed showing of Gautam’s video at the January 2014 Asia for Animals conference, and after a presentation by Bodh Prasad Prapuli, chief of the Central Animal Quarantine Office, government of Nepal, who attended his second AfA conference at his own expense, I expressed skepticism of the claimed numbers.
So, likewise, did Federation of Indian Animal Welfare Organizations founder Arpan Sharma, FIAPO legal counsel Norma Alvarez, and Animal Welfare Board of India chair General R.M. Kharb.
After a tea break, we spent 90 minutes starting and stopping the video to count animals and people, scene by scene. Ten viewers produced counts averaging 892 people and 735 buffalo, with high counts of 1,080 people and 1,300 buffalo.
Jagdish Arya described 600 men participating in the slaughter. Lang of The Guardian reported that about 250 men were licensed to participate. Gautam was told that “389 signed up initially, but only 223 went in the arena for the task, according to the committee.”
The video, however, showed no more than 25 men actually killing buffalo. Photos obtained from other sources showed even fewer. Everyone else shown was a spectator, lined up two or three deep behind a fence.
Of the other species said to have been sacrificed, only four goats, two chickens, and two captive pigeons were seen, along with perhaps several hundred free pigeons roosting on the temple roof.
The video, in short, confirmed that the Gadhi Mai festival is magnitudes of order smaller than has been claimed, chiefly by local priests trying to drum up participation.
Bigger than Spanish bullfighting
But this does not mean it is small. By way of comparison, only 1,014 bulls were killed in 2012 in Spanish arena bullfights, a similar exercise of public cruelty.
Spanish arena bullfights have attracted sustained international protest for more than 100 years. Ernest Hemingway acknowledged humane objections––and largely agreed with them, while defending corrida for other reasons––in the opening pages of his 1932 treatise Death In The Afternoon.
Though corrida today kills half as many bulls and horses as a decade ago, and far fewer than in Hemingway’s time, it remains a focal issue for thousands of Spanish animal advocates, and thousands more worldwide.
In tactical terms, the difference between the Gadhi Mai festival killing 250,000 animals and killing perhaps 2,500 is the difference between confronting the Atlantic Canada seal hunt and confronting events such as the “Bunny Bop” rabbit-killing contest held annually in Harmony, North Carolina, from 1946 to 1967, and the Fred C. Coleman Memorial Pigeon Shoot, held each Labor Day in Hegins, Pennsylvania from 1935 to 1999.
Humane opposition to the Atlantic Canada seal hunt emerged as early as 1900, and has been sustained to varying degrees since 1960. From the beginning, it involved the massacre of several hundred thousand seals per year, and was protected by the economic and cultural importance of the hunt to Atlantic Canada, together with the strategic importance of the Maritime provinces to any political party wishing to govern the whole of Canada.
To this day, after 113 years of opposition, the Atlantic Canada seal hunt continues, with huge Canadian federal subsidies, even though opponents have cut off every significant external market for the seal pelts and other products.
If the Gadhi Mai festival had ever attracted several hundred thousand participants, killing tens of thousands of animals, it would have economic, cultural, and political weight in Nepal comparable to the economic, cultural, and political weight of the Atlantic Canada seal hunt in Canada––and therefore might be defended in much the same manner for at least the next 113 years.
Ending the “Bunny Bop” and the Hegins pigeon shoot took seven and 13 years, respectively, despite several years of counterproductive confrontational protest in each case. After the confrontational demonstrations were suspended, in each instance a combination of low-profile economic and legal strategies stopped the supposedly culturally entrenched killing within just three years.
The economic weight of the Gadhi Mai festival falls heavily on some of the poorest people in the world. Bihar per capita income is currently about $133 per year, person. This is about three times the current $42 per capita income of rural residents of the Tarai, the region of Nepal bordering Bihiar.
The largest donors of buffalo, according to Gautam, were one Indian family who contributed 160 and the Nepali government, which contributed 108. The total government subsidy was three million Nepali rupees, worth about $30,000. According to Prapuli of the Central Quarantine Office, the lowest price of a buffalo in recent years would be about $500. At that rate, the government subsidy would have bought just 60.
If Bihar and Bara rural people donate 2,000 buffalo to be sacrificed during the Gadhi Mai festival, with a sale value of $500 apiece or more, they are donating at least $1 million worth of animals. The economic impact on the region of killing 2,000 buffalo, at per capita income of $133/year, would be equal to the annual income of 7,519 people on the Bihar side of the border; 23,809 people on the Bara side.
The value of a dead buffalo whose carcass mostly goes to waste is considerably less than the value of a live buffalo. If half of the economic value of the buffalo is wasted, as reports of many carcasses being buried in mass graves indicate, the wastage alone is equal to the annual incomes of up to 12,000 people.
“The money that the Gadhi Mai festival committee makes is not all that proportional to the number of animals slaughtered,” Gautam told ANIMALS 24-7. “They don’t sell animals,” though the hides and some of the meat from the slaughtered animals are sold, “nor do they charge an entry fee from the visitors. The money that they make comes from the offerings made by visitors. Such a mass destruction of animals is a huge economic loss, to the public who lose their animals for no return, to the government as there is no taxation involved, and for the country, as Nepal keeps buying buffaloes from India for daily consumption, while thousands of its own local production go wasted.”
Gautam and Khatiwada offered the Asia for Animals 2014 delegates an action plan which would require a budget of $20,550 to field 100 volunteers to work in the vicinity of Bariyarpur, with campaign materials and supporting television and radio commercials. The budget would also include hosting a national conference on relevance of animal sacrifice to contemporary Nepal, and pursuing public interest litigation against the Gadhi Mai sacrifice. Even if the numbers of animals sacrificed are fewer than 2,500, very few animal advocacy campaigns have the potential to spare more animals at lower cost.