Durga Puja: Just Like Thanksgiving, Except with Goat Sacrifices

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See that scary ten-armed lady there?  The one wielding a spear, a serpent, and a pet lion, using them all simultaneously to maul an evil buffalo and dismember and perforate that pair of dark-skinned demons?  That’s DURGA, the goddess of victory, and you want her on your side.

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The road from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, two of the Orient’s mystical mountain strongholds, passes through something called “The Terai.”  It was once a vast jungle, buzzing with so many malaria-carrying mosquitoes that humans didn’t stand a chance.  Now, thanks to DDT and heavy machinery, it’s become an enormous pancake-flat rice paddy that runs just about the whole 1000km length of Nepal’s southern border with India.  With not so much as a hillock in sight, riding there was a total breeze, flatter than anything I’d wheeled across since leaving Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra. 100km finished before lunchtime despite frequent snack stops under enormous shade trees; lunch and a nice two hour break during the hottest hours; another 40 or 50km with a couple stops to pick up some evening eatbles.  Camp, rinse if there’s clean water nearby, repeat.  Cycle touring doesn’t get much easier than this.

Life for the locals is a fair bit tougher.  Not only do they have to deal with all the trials and tribulations that come with living in the least developed parts of Nepal, itself one of the poorest countries in the world (as low as 177 out of 189 according to some sources); they also have to contend with the whims and fancies of the Durga, the goddess of victory and the symbol of Good’s triumph over Evil and therefore Life’s triumph over Death.  If she’s on your side, you’ll have good luck in business, good harvests in the fields, good grades on your tests, and whatever else you need.   If not…I guess things aren’t so pleasant.

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I’ll drop the smugness now since, as silly, superstitious, and antiquated as the whole thing seems to me, there’s a whole web of mythology with morals going back thousands of years which I’m totally uninformed about and not in a position to analyze, let alone criticize.  There’s also the fact that the locals take it seriously – seriously enough to  dress up in their best clothes (the women, at least), to walk several kilometers barefoot over hot pavement, to prepare lavish offerings of spices, candies, and cash, to wait in line to deliver them to the priest, and to raise goats all year long just to sacrifice them on one auspicious day in early October.  I could have formulated my philosophical views about all of this from an armchair just about anywhere; I’m traveling in order to see it directly, to feel what I can, to share in it as much as is possible for a stranger like me.

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In this case, I also got a few drops of fresh goat blood splattered on my ankles.  But more on that at the back end of the post.

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I’m going to do this one a little achronologically.  The goat sacrifice came first and was clearly the most exotic part of the festival for me, but for many of the locals it’s just as blasé as a trip to Walmart to pick up some Christmas Presents would be for someone back home.  These people are farmers.  They deal with animals constantly, herding them, yoking them, milking them and, yes, killing them.  What happens during Durga Puja is just a slightly more dramatic version of entirely quotidian events.

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The holiday – like all holidays? – is as much about family time and a break from work as it is about whatever it’s supposed to be about.  I was lucky enough to spend it with the Poudel family; Ahbimanju and Ahbishek saw me standing in the shade checking my GPS and summoned me from the balcony with hand gestures that indicated unmistakably that they intended to feed me.  Mom was surprisingly unfazed by one sweaty whitey’s entrance into their courtyard; she promptly popped into the kitchen and returned with a plate of smashed rice  topped with homemade yogurt topped with sugar.

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The two brothers, both about a decade younger than me, live in Kathmandu.  Just like so many of my friends in Korea, they’re studying at private academies to prepare themselves for the civil service exam.  Top testers can secure life-long jobs with plenty of benefits and promotion opportunities in government offices and the police department.

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Durga Puja is actually just one day – one event, even – that takes place over the course of Darshain, Nepal’s longest and most important festival.  It lasts for over two weeks, during which time Kathmandu empties itself as everyone returns to their hometowns to reconnect with friends and family.  I spent two days with the Poudels zipping around from village to village on Ahbi’s motorcycle, meeting Uncles, Aunties, Brothers, Cousin Brothers, Cousins’ Uncles, and other myriad relations, all living within a five mile radius.

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Perhaps it was the way I devoured every snack they placed in front of me, or the way I merrily tagged along to the wedding buffet (missed the real event), or the way I followed Ahbishek to the market to pick up some pumpkin for dinner, or the way I devoured that too, or the way I took photos of just about everything – in any case, I ingratiated myself pretty quickly.  Before I knew it, I, too, had a forehead painted with the rice, yogurt, and vermillion mixture known here as “Tikka”.  I also came away with twenty rupees ($0.20) of extra spending money and a future blessed with good wishes from new friends.

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Now it’s nearly two months later and I’m in Kathmandu – but so are the Ahbis.  Time for a brothers-from-another-mother reunion.

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The Poudels enlisted me as their camera man, so I was able to to go mad with the camera and record a bunch of stuff that otherwise I would have been too shy and self-conscious to document.  Here, grandma is preparing Tikka-fy one of the littlest cousins.

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Uncle to Nephew.

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Ahbimanju with baby, Ahbishek with grandma.

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A few kilometers to the east the extended family was doing the same.

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I can’t help but be cynical about all the stories and symbolism, but neither can I deny how touching it is to be, well…touched.   There’s something beautiful in the way it’s done directly, face to face, hand to head, skin to skin.  Even for one who believes that Tikka itself doesn’t mean anything, the giving does.

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Now, if you’ll allow an abrupt transition from the slightly sappy to the relatively gruesome…

If you don’t want to see pictures of decapitated goats, you’d better find another blog to read ASAP.

Though, if you’ll allow me one Meet Your Meat moment: this stuff isn’t really any more gruesome than what happens to animals every day on small farms worldwide, and pales in comparison to the way livestock live and die in factory farms in countries usually referred to as “advanced” and “developed.”

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Women and children wait in line to offer offerings to the priest inside the shrine, while in the courtyard….

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They’ve set up an extremely low-tech goat decapitation facility: one hemp bag, three barefoot men, one rope, one large blade.

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…it gets the job done.

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While the women queue up to give spices to the gods, the men wait to bring their goats to the executioners.  A single goat’s appointment with death takes thirty seconds or less.  He’s dragged through puddles of his brothers’ blood, then the rope around his neck is pulled taught by one man while his rear legs are grabbed by another.   If he’s strong enough to kick and fight he might extend his life by ten seconds or so, but either way it’s not long before his head hits the cement and his body, still spurting at the neck, is chucked out front to be stuffed into a rice bag and taken home.  Sometimes the head gets taken along, sometimes it’s left as an offering to the Goddess.

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At another shrine a few kilometers away, the process was performed slightly more hygenically in a cramped enclosure with tiled floors.  It still wasn’t pretty.

Yes, that’s a small collection of unclaimed goat heads on the left side there.

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On the street just a few meters away from the sacrifice square there’s not much evidence of the bloodbath currently in progress.  Families wander around buying trinkets and snacking on Laddu, special sweet bean balls the size of donut holes made specially for the occasion.

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I don’t think I need to tell you what’s in the bags.

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Out in the villages, families who have already returned home after the sacrifice begin the process of skinning the goats, letting out their blood, separating their organs, and chopping everything into proper culinary portions.  Along the main roads, restaurants set up ad-hoc butchering stations where they do the same. They tend to keep the brains for themselves.  By early afternoon, just about everybody is back home, gathered around pots of warm goat curry.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

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