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THE GUWAHATI CHOP

Maaa-a-a-aah…’

Chop!

I learnt to recognize the quite distinct sound of an assassin’s knife slicing through a young goat’s neck. There was always a last desperate ‘maa-a-a-aaah!’ and then this particular clean, quick thud.

Bye bye goat.

Goats went to Shiva with a bleat and a chop. Some were carried up the hill and through the temple grounds in their owner’s arms, sweet little white bundles, perfectly happy to be taken off on a ride, each christened with a vermillion tika and a garland. Others waited in a line outside, contently sitting, looking around quite unconcerned – killing time before they were to be sold, tika’d and slaughtered.

Inside the grand temple complex of Kamakhya Mandir it was a sea of red – red everywhere, every variation on the colour from orange through to purple, draped on and around hundreds of men. Red was the colour of priests and acolytes, of sadhus, sacrifice and blood. Blood. Blood was everywhere.

One enormous line of people lolled in what looked like cages – apparently the only way of controlling the huge flood of Guwahatis who had come especially today to exercise their faith. The combination of long weekend, full moon and the last day of Bohag Bihu were highly auspicious. It didn’t take long before I heard that familiar refrain…

‘Maaa-a-a-aa…’

Chop!

Amidst that crowd of happy, red-swathed men, one in particular seemed to be the designated executioner. It was all very efficient. The goats were carried or led to a small path of bare earth. Sticking up from this patch of earth was an odd shaped block of stone, looking rather like an elongated stone slingshot. This patch of earth was enclosed with concrete, covered in bloodied light brown tiles. It was a floor of considerable gore. Maybe the goat-chopper said a brief prayer, I really couldn’t tell, but with little ceremony and maximum speed those little goat necks were swiftly placed in this ‘slingshot’ device, effectively trapping their heads and those deadly little horns in a pincer – then their bodies pulled back, all in the one movement.

That’s when the ‘maaa-a-a-aah!’- chop! bit comes.

The severed heads were thrown onto that disgusting tiled floor. Seven or eight of them lay in a line, all with the same startled look, those staring wide eyes, spattered with their own blood, a lurid little cameo against the light pink tiles of the back wall.

‘Gosh!’ Those eyes were saying. ‘Gosh! How did I get here?’

*

I must have seen thirty or more goats go to goat heaven in my three visits to Kamahkya Mandir. I’ve seen goat sacrifices from pretty much every available angle: up close, far away, over the wall, through the window, from above – I’ve pretty much had the goat sacrifice experience.

The real theatre comes with the buffalo slaughter. Now you’re talking; this was the piece de resistance, a blood-fest that attracted quite a crowd – I had a ring-side seat. Bongo was right beside me looking decidedly green: he was dutifully guarding his client – but clearly Bongo would have preferred another client right at this moment. He didn’t care for this blood and gore, just didn’t like this whole sacrifice thing. Like most of us, I guess – except the Dog.

Dog was in another zone. He was there but not there, simultaneously. Dog opened his brain and took it in. He didn’t put out at all. This was Dogster’s favorite trick; simple yet profound.

We were inside the slaughter hall. Outside, ranged on rows and rows of tiered steps reaching up thirty or more feet, sat hundreds of onlookers looking down towards us through large open gaps in the wall. I found it fascinating, found myself strangely unmoved by the blood and the muck – stared deep into this extraordinary thing happening right in front of me, amazed at how it all worked, invisible in the midst of a powerful piece of theatre that’s been going on for a thousand years.

Things were looking grim for the buffalo. He was led in, protesting loudly. Twenty or so men in red went into action – they were quite a team. The beast was dragged forward to two wooden stakes fixed in the floor at an angle. Once in position both stakes were jammed together in a sudden pincer movement and its head pinioned between them. A bar was jammed down on it from above, locking the animal’s neck.

There was usually a ‘Mwww-e-u-e-u-egh!’ at this point.

Ten or so men simultaneously threaded poles through the buffalo’s legs then, at a signal, pulled those surprised legs out from under him. I couldn’t see exactly how they did it, it was all happening very fast, but before I and the buffalo knew it, he was pinioned by the neck, his back legs splayed out behind him, just about to die.

I was barefoot, standing on a very disgusting floor, right in the front row. Everything was happening very quickly, just three meters from my amazed face. Tiny children squeezed around my legs, picking their thin bodies in the gaps between grown-ups, anxious to see.

Ropes were slung around the bull’s horns and, as the men behind pulled back on their poles, the men on ropes all pulled forward. This took a few heave-ho’s before it was mission accomplished. I saw that buffalo neck get longer and longer and longer. The neck was stretched out by more than a foot. His bloated buffalo tongue poked out his yawning buffalo mouth, two sad buffalo eyes bulged empty in their sockets; the star of the show was dying.

The drumming increased dramatically and there was a surge from the crowd as the priest raised his huge knife – a tangible current of what I can only describe as ‘blood-lust’ ran through the building – then sudden silence and a heavy thud as machete sliced through buffalo neck. In a millisecond it was done.

Head and body fell apart. A splash of arterial blood slashed across the crowd as the torso collapsed on the ground. There was a collective gasp of wonder from the onlookers – then it was all over. The head was already being carried round the temple, bleeding on the floor, taken in to the inner sanctum to be blessed and boiled, for all I know. The men casually unthreaded their poles and walked away chatting to each other, unconcerned. The spectators dispersed. The buffalo’s body just sat there on two bended knees – about as dead as a dead buffalo can be.

*

Bongo was very pale.

‘I think we’ll go outside now, Bongo.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he agreed.

‘You just sit on that ledge in the sun.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he agreed.

It was our last day together. We were relaxed and sat in silence for a while, watching the milling crowds. I saw a man with a crimson slash of buffalo blood running right across his starched white shirt. He looked very happy. He’d been blessed.

I turned to him.

‘Bongo?

He looked at me with a blank, dutiful face.

‘How long have we spent together?

‘Fourteen days.’

‘That’s a long time, eh?

‘Yes, sir.’

He’d been calling me that for two weeks.  It was ‘sir’- always ‘sir.’

‘Bongo – what’s my name?’

I looked steadily into his eyes. I knew what his answer would be.

I waited.

I waited.

‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually.

Mr. Dogster stood up, smiled sadly then wandered off alone, fell into the crowd as it rolled and rocked and rose in waves up and over the steps and into the chapels and temples above, soaking it all in through the soles of his feet; the blood and the milk and the oil – nameless and faceless, another lost soul; a duty, a burden, a pain.

‘Bye bye Bongo,’ I thought.

Maa-a-a-aaah!’

Chop!

*

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