Sacrifices, Whiskey and Cultural Acceptance
“You are sick, you are weak; this will make you feel better.” Phani handed me a bottle of whiskey.
Personally, I thought he was overreacting. I was doing okay. But then again, my mother’s favourite saying as I grew up was always, “Take a teaspoon of cement, kiddo and toughen up.”
I was sitting in the warm kitchen, in the glow of the flickering lights (who doesn’t love electrical surges?) and I had a runny nose. It was actually the second time I’d gotten a cold since arriving in Nepal, but neither had been particularly horrific. Rather, it had informed me of an oversight in putting together a bag of medicine that covered me for everything from malaria to altitude sickness, but didn’t address a running nose, sinus pain and muscle aches.
My kind host family were very concerned about me. I spent one day sleeping my cold off, and then did the foolish act of attempting to climb a mountain the next morning to see a Puja at a temple. I had very mixed feelings after the festival, which wasn’t just because I was severely lightheaded. See, this was day eight of the Dashain Festival, Maha Asthami, where across the country people were sacrificing buffaloes, goats, pigeons and roosters to appease the bloodthirsty reincarnation of the goddess Durga.
I knew this going up the mountain, but wasn’t quite ready for what I saw. Most of my host family didn’t join me. Devout Hindus, and vegetarian at that, they aren’t particularly fond of witnessing the slaughter of hundreds of animals.
For the walk up the mountain (punctuated by heaving breaths and me coughing up a lung), we were surrounded by fellow pilgrims, many of whom were leading young goats decorated with flower garlands, or had roosters tucked under their arms and in baskets.
About three hours into the hike, we made it out of the rice paddies and onto a gravel road, where we managed to flag down a jeep to take us the rest of the way. I nearly collapsed with relief. The temple was on top of the mountain, and if it weren’t for the heavy fog, we would have had extraordinary views of valleys, the winding creeks and the undulating bright green rice fields. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people there. They were wearing a mix of traditional and modern clothing, with one memorable eight-year-old boy wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with a fluoro All I do is Sleep, Fuck and Party.
Drums were beating, and I finally spotted what had drawn these hundreds of people to circle this particular spot. In front of the temple was a barefooted man in simple pants and a white t-shirt speckled with red blood. Held loosely in one hand was a long, sword-shaped machete. He wiped his forehead with the back of his spare hand, smearing the blood into long streaks. Two boys were pushing a water buffalo calf to the front of the temple to be tied to a post. It was held there, straining, eyes rolling, when the barefooted man raised the sword over his head. The noise from the crowd got louder, rising in crescendo until the sword swung down. There was a collective gasp from the spectators. And with the sword, so did the water buffalo drop to the ground, head now separated from its body. The audience cheered, and I felt sick.
More and more people lined up with young buffalo, chickens, goats and pigeons. I watched, queasy, as the dirt in front of the temple became more and more blood stained, and people started dragging decapitated animals out of the way. Beheaded chickens flapped outlandishly, splattering those who could not control them with specks of blood. A man carrying the head of a buffalo by the ear either didn’t notice or didn’t care as the blood stained the concrete path back to the road.
I felt slightly relieved to learn that the animals that were here for sacrifice were also taken back home to be eaten in feasts, it felt like less of a waste somehow. At least the animal’s bodies aren’t just left here to rot, I thought. The whole festival, despite being constantly filmed on camera phones by guys wearing Obey snapbacks, felt incredibly archaic. I mean, animals being sacrificed to appease bloodthirsty Gods? It’s easy to think that such a world just doesn’t exist anymore, not hand in hand with modern society, a knife edge in which Nepal continues to teeter.
The next evening, rugged up in a cardigan and trying to insist to my host family that I was more than fine, Phani my host father said something that shocked me a little. He insisted that I was not strong enough from their staple diet of dal bhat (lentil and bean-based curries with rice) and that I must eat some chicken so I can be healthy again. That, coupled with some whiskey to kill any germs and my sore throat, was sure to put me right again in a few days. Sure enough, the next day I was offered a chicken curry Madam Durga cooked up over the open fire outside the house. I felt guilty that they were serving me chicken (and whiskey!) as none of the family eat meat or drink alcohol as per their religious beliefs. I found it hard to understand why they would do something that contradicts their own religion like this. They explained that though it is against their beliefs to consume meat and alcohol, doing what’s best for my health made it ok (debatable, but at that stage I’d just decided to go with it). And besides, I eat meat and drink alcohol in Australia; it wasn’t breaking any of my religious beliefs.
My host family’s easy cultural acceptance made me rethink my attitude at the Maha Asthami festival. I have no doubt that these next thoughts might not please any vegetarian or vegans reading this, but here goes.
Travelling and learning about cultures other than your own is not always easy. It’s not always sitting in an Ashram, saying “Namaste” and feeling a smug inner peace. It’s not always posing for photographs in front of monuments or sitting on a beach drinking a piña colada. Sometimes culture is confronting and confusing. I am definitely not saying I enjoyed witnessing the sacrifice festival, but I am not condemning it, either. It is obviously an important part of the local Hindu culture and I, with my western upbringing, was too quick to judge these traditions as barbaric.
Cultural acceptance is a sticky area of discussion. You don’t have to always agree with something, nor do you have to like it, but you should respect the choices and beliefs of others. The ease at which my host family welcomed and made allowances for me even when it was against theirs reminded me that tolerance is and always should be a simple act, and to me, is what travelling and experiencing other cultures is all about.
Photos by the author