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Why Nepal scared the sh*t out of us…

March 15, 2011

Entering Kathmandu, Nepal.

Entering a country of ancient traditions, impressive to some but strikingly painful to others. This story is about encountering local traditions while you travel. You might not like this one, I warn you.

How to describe Kathmandu? I don’t even remember all the details. Chaotic, old, rural, and with the problems every big city faces: traffic jams and pollution. Around the main Durbar square however, a strange feeling quickly came upon us.

Time traveling.
It is not that we felt odd in our Western-style clothes, but the square was like a time loop, a peek into history.

Durbar square Kathmandu

Traveling back in time

We love to spend time traveling, but sometimes travels make time stand still. You reach places where you actually sense history.

History reaches us not only through old buildings or the way people sell and buy goods at the market. It is mostly customs and habits that make us wonder why people have not passed through the door we call progress.
Of course we have to cherish our traditions, but don’t you think that sometimes we should hold up a mirror to people? Some traditions don’t fit in todays way of life, overtaken by science or just common modern sense.

Yes, I know I am talking from a Western perspective here. In many Western countries traditions have adapted to modern times, but when you travel the world you come across traditions that really make you wonder.

Or scare you!

One of those traditions happens annually in Nepal. We stayed in its capital Kathmandu exactly on the days it all happened. Call it lucky or call it bad luck. It’s up to you to decide.

It started when we drove through the city in a Tuk-Tuk. We saw something strange in the corner of our eye. Slowly we turned our heads, only to see something that struck us. A man was carrying a plate walking the narrow and dusty streets around Durbar square. He looked like a waiter. Only thing was he carried a big silver plate with a goats head on top of it.

Its tongue sticked out. The funny thing about it was my immediate response (strange that I still remember that so well): “Hmm, must be freshly slaughtered”. It was, it was freshly slaughtered!

Just half an hour later we were drinking tea and another man passed by, carrying a same plate with yet another goats head. At that time we started to feel a bit strange. What was happening here?

Mass animal sacrifice

We quickly read our guide books and talked to fellow travelers. We found out that this was day One of mass animal slaughtering throughout Nepal. They call it sacrificing. I didn’t recall the numbers, but for sure thousands and thousands of goats, cows and buffaloes were slaughtered. Why? For good luck. To celebrate the victory of good over evil.

There was an atmosphere of excitement in the city of Kathmandu. But a kind of excitement that made us feel very uncomfortable. But human beings have a strong sense of curiosity, even up to the morbid. So we stayed around.

Tough as we were (or wanted to be), we found our way to a square where thousands of Nepali gathered (including some ‘lucky’ travelers like us). This seemed to be the Taleju Temple where 54 buffaloes and 54 goats were about to be slaughtered.

We watched animals being slaughtered in a ceremony with flags and music. We showed our antipathy but strangly enough were also impressed by the power of the sword. One man could chop the head of a buffalo in only one hit of the sword. A lot of strength is needed for that I can assure you.
Animal heads were collected one side of the area. The body was dragged around the place, creating a circle of blood (I warned you). Blood was also collected and used to spray on cars, airplanes or Tuk-Tuks for another year of safety and good luck.

Buffaloe slaughtering

Animal sacrifice

Dragging the body

Slaughtering a goat in Nepal

Worship or cruelty?

It is not strange that lately animal rights campaigners are trying to stop this tradition. I am not writing this post to judge these events. I am telling this story to let you know that traveling the world means you might bump into unexpected sights and events that might scare you. Things you might wanted to avoid. But remember, sometimes the unavoidable creates the unforgettable.

Tell me, what places or events have you encountered that made a lasting impression, good or bad?

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From → Asia

23 Comments
  1. Emiel, your writing in this post has improved significantly – was it so that you explain the shock while still staying true to both a “sick” tradition and also to animal rights? I don’t know but some phrases here are amazing…Example:

    “It is mostly customs and habits that make us wonder why people have not passed through the door we call progress.”

    As for this tradition, do you know what I am about to tell you? That in old Iranian tradition, THIS very thing is a sacred act and people do it for special events. It is always a poor goat too. Sometimes a cow. For instance, they “sacrifice” a goat for the health of a newly wed couple or for a newly born baby or for the declining health of a loved one – and it is a sacred tradition which is really sad and sick but it is what it is ….

    Now I know where we got the damn tradition. Those Nepalese! 😉

    • Farnoosh,
      Thanks for the compliment! Look at all the other comments, there is so much going on in the world. And as Tien says, it is difficult to judge culture and tradition but we are here to tell the stories and to show what is happening. There are some pretty sick traditions out there which I found on the internet while researching this post.
      And now…let’s check the Facebook mini survey for my next subject…let’s leave the traditions and sacrifices for a while 🙂

  2. Wow!! I would probably have gotten queasy!

    I once attended a Matanza (in Spanish, a “killing”) here in Spain. They pretty much have a picnic, slaughter a few giant pigs, and resume with the picnic.

    After watching the first pig thrash for its life and hearing its squeals (it sounded like a small child getting murdered), I grabbed my bag and hiked to the nearest town, which was half an hour away on foot. A couple of friends and I had some coffee before heading back up (we were only gone for a total of an hour and a half).

    By the time we got back to the picnic, all the pigs had been slaughtered, and their various body parts were divided into several heaps (gut heaps, leg heaps, head heaps).

    This is now (somewhat) unlawful in several parts of Spain, and Animal Rights Activists are definitely trying to put a stop to it (in addition to Bullfighting), but these are all traditional ceremonies very ingrained in Spain’s culture. Not that I necessarily enjoy them, but they are impressionable and make you think: SPAIN!

    • Queasy…well, in the beginning that was also our thought Michi. But after some time that fades away (getting used to it is not really the right expression here).
      I can understand very well that you grabbed your bag and turned your back on these killings. I am sure I would have joined you. What a story. I understand that you also have difficulties judging these Spanish cultural ceremonies. But we can and have to tell and share those stories, so we do. Thanks Michi!

  3. In some parts of Indonesia people still practice cock fight (and other animals, such as sheep). They put two roosters in an arena and let them fight until they got bleeding and in some cases until one of them dies. It is such a horrible spectacle I must say. I’ve heard that in The Philippines they also have such thing. I’m gonna check that out when I’m going to Manila in early April this year.

    • The cock fights are indeed terrible and very much illegal I believe. Thanks for sharing and I must say I’d rather read your post and watch your pictures of the Borobodur and Prambanan temples 🙂

  4. In my home country Malaysia, the Muslims has a day for slaughter as well, they call it Qurban meaning sacrifice in Arabic. It is a sacred day where cows and goats (usually) are donated and slaughtered (sacrificed) in the mosque and the meat given to the poor. It is similar but not as extreme as the Nepalese where the body was dragged around and blood sprayed! That is absolutely animal cruelty! Okay, I take that back, I have no right to judge their culture and tradition. However, I would feel very disturbed if I am one of the spectators.

    Remembering my (few) travel encounters, I do have a recollection of a tribe near Guilin, China where the women never vut their hair for life. They pinch your behind as a way to say they like you! More cute than scary really!

    Thanks for another great post Emiel!

    • Hi Tien,
      I totally understand you that some acts of sacrifice are for the good, but others are just cruelty. As I said in other replies here, we might find it difficult to judge but we need to show and tell. Love your Chinese travel story, thanks!

  5. I’m glad I read your blog.I’ve always wanted to visit Nepal, but if I ever do, I’ll make sure its not during the killing season. Your pictures captured the killing of the animals very well.

    • Thanks Gladys,
      If you have the chance, Nepal is a beautiful country. We also went to Chitwan National Park (to watch – not kill – rhinos) and Pokhara (where we experienced a stunning view of the Himalayas – I will share that one later on this blog). We combined it with the North of India. One of our most impressive travels indeed.

  6. This is travel writing!

    I look into the ancient myths and the whole idea “of the Net of Indra” suggests that “surrender” of a gazelle to a lion is part of the symphony of the cosmos.

    That said, this stuff sounds gruesome to my Left Coast ear–I echo Farnoosh (w/you): “It is mostly customs and habits that make us wonder why people have not passed through the door we call progress.”

    And yet, what are these are ancient rites and rituals…common as time immemorial. Ours are there (going to the movies, consuming “grown” chicken); I wonder if I’ve just sterilized our myths, our morbidity, our jubilee.

    Excellent post.

    Mark
    P.S. How did you stylize these photos so well?

    • Thanks Mark. I am sure it is all part of the Net of Indra, all things are connected. But we have to travel to discover them. We have to walk the Net and wonder.
      I guess only traveling makes the Net visible, when slowly the fog of day-to-day routine dissapears. Stories help to understand. Thanks, great comment.

  7. You are asking what events have left unforgettable impressions on us? In our many years on the road we have seen many such events, but do you know what left the biggest, most lasting impression? It’s how generous, how helpful and how wonderful human beings are in all the places we have travelled to. And when we lived in rural China and went against (possibly) one million of cultural issues without knowing, we were always forgiven and welcome and that has taught us a lot about this world. We will try to be equally tolerant and forgiving to anybody who ventures out of their comfort zone into ours, be it for pleasure or for reasons of fear. We will never forget how it feels to be vulnerable and non-understanding and to have someone hold a hand out to us…

    We love your articles and the way they make people think! Thank you
    Nadine

    • Nadine, what a great comment! Indeed it doesn’t have to be one single event that makes that long-lasting impression. I totally agree with you that traveling the world learns you a lot about people. People in different cultures with different backgrounds but many of them with a dedicated willingness to help.

      Wonderful message you just wrote, thank you.

  8. As much as I hate to see animals suffer, it worries me that westerners may travel to these cultures, form judgements based on their own values, and try to change ancient customs to comply with their own. How many cows do we butcher for Big Macs? A LOT MORE than you saw butchered that day.

    I’m still bummed that the missionaries stopped cannibalism. That would’ve been cool to see, no? Hello? Anyone? Okay, maybe I’m just a little twisted …

    • Hi Torre! Twisted? Well….cannibalism?! lol
      Seriously, glad you commented here. I am totally with you when you talk about trying to have other cultures comply to your own. A lot of wars resulted from that kind of thinking. Sometimes it is difficult to understand cultural aspects; what is right and what is wrong?
      But if you travel the world and come across the road less traveled (.) you have to prepare yourself for such events. And yes, in some countries this happens out in the open (rather than in closed factories).

      • Very true.

        They’re not particularly wealthy in Nepal. The farmers in the Annapurna mountains told me they hardly have enough food to feed themselves and their families. In many parts, people’s lives seem to be all work and no play. So, I imagine that butchering a farm animal is a HUGE sacrifice for them and the animals life and sacrifice (even though it seems pointless to us) doesn’t go unappreciated.

        Thanks for sharing this story, I think I’ll avoid Butcher Fest 2012.

  9. I imagine that none of the meat actually goes to waste – i.e it is eaten afterwards? Animals are ritually sacrificed in Balinese Hindu ceremonies also – I have been in Java during the Muslim day of sacrifice also.

    It is an interesting Western perspective we take to be appalled by the act of killing animals, yet we are happy to eat meat (often in such disguised forms!) in almost every meal. (probably in much greater quantities than the Nepalese and are more wasteful with it)

    Do you think the way the animals die (or live – in the cases of Poultry and Swine) is much more humane? – Just because it happens out of our view?

    I am a great believer that if you cant deal with the connection of meat being once a living thing then you shouldn’t actually eat it…

    • Hello Brigid,
      I do believe all the meat is eaten. In Nepal it was the animals blood that was used for sacred purification.
      If I believe this way of killing is more humane? I didn’t write the post to judge this aspect of Nepalese culture. And really, I wouldn’t dare to answer that because I don’t know.
      I guess Torre’s comment was spot on: in countries like Nepal the death of the animal is much more appreciated/valued.

  10. Prasanta permalink

    As a Nepalese growing up in a foreign country (Born in Nepal, raised in Hong Kong and now living in Australia). I can understand your views.
    The mass animal sacrificing happened around 2 years ago when I last went to visit Nepal, and I was pretty shocked by this event. But my people have been accustomed to this tradition and I believe it has become a vital part of our tradition.
    But sometimes I tend to think, tradition is an old way of life and although it may be important, Nepal would benefit so much more without some , i.e) these animal sacrificing. Just thinking about how much people are in poverty in Nepal, why not donate the animals instead of killing them. However, my Nepalese tradition knowledge is limited, I cannot say exactly what happens in these events. Just adding my two cents.

    Also, “Chaotic, old, rural, and with the problems every big city faces: traffic jams and pollution. Around the main Durbar square however, a strange feeling quickly came upon us.”
    Clearly, you haven’t seen all of what Nepal has to offer. When I go back to Nepal, I usually stay in my house near the capital ‘Katmandu’. But the last time I went back, I visited Pokhara: I went paragliding and got to see the whole city, and I was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was, Gurkha, and finally Lumbini: the birthplace of Buddha. Nepal may be an old country, but it sure has a lot to offer than just traffic jams and pollution, and animal sacrifices.

    • Hello Prasanta!
      Thank you very much for your comment, appreciated. I am certainly aware of the other things that Nepal has to offer besides Kathmandu, I just haven´t written about them yet. Next to Kathmandu we visited the Chitwan National Park and Pokhara (where we saw the magnificent Annapurna mountains).
      I agree with you that it is difficult to judge traditions, especially if you from a different country (or part of the world in my case). I found it important to write about it, without telling if it is right or wrong.

      Do come back to my blog and make sure to visit the new site at http://www.actoftraveling.com! Thanks for stopping by.
      Emiel

  11. Trish permalink

    Hi,
    Not nearly as gruesome as some of the above posts, but I had something rather funny happen to me one of the times I was in Romania. In the process of adopting a boy, I ended up going to Romania four times. The part of the country was Hungarian, so I took Hungarian lessons and learned to speak some. As I made friends, I ended up staying with one family during one of the trips. The people didn’t have very much, and they were very careful. I learned to eat everything in moderation, regardless of what had been offered to me, because the people there were very generous, happy, and loving, despite having been trapped in a Communist regime for decades and living very meager lives.
    Anyway, one day at lunch, I was presented with canned fish, which had probably been hoarded for a special occasion, in the presence of company.. I noted that the fish were whole– heads, tails, and guts. I had only eaten sardines prior to that, and all the “offending” parts had been removed. With my limited Hungarian skills, I decided that I was supposed to eat the fish as is, so I did. The daughter, with surprise, asked her mother if that was normal– for people to eat the whole fish. Her mother replied that she guessed people in America ate them that way, while her daughter chopped off the head and tail… !! That’s what I got for trying to fit in!

    • That’s hilarious Trish! I love that story, thanks for sharing. We are currently in Asia where my wife and daughter ate fried insects for the first time. It’s gruesome at the very moment, but later on it’s a great story to share!
      Please do head over to http://www.actoftraveling.com where I have continued my blog since last year. Thanks.

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