Blood and Sacrifice

Maybe it was the full moon that prompted me to stay for the goat sacrifice after the Nongrem Dance. Or maybe I felt I needed to open myself up to all sides of Khasi culture.  Or maybe there’s something in the nature of sacrifice that I’m trying to understand. Or what’s behind killing an animal. I’ve admired the Khasi’s reverence for nature, their care taking of the forest. Blood sacrifice is part of it. So I stayed in Smit Village well after dark, because an animal sacrifice must certainly take place after the moon has risen.

The Nongrem Dance, an annual dance of harvest and thanksgiving, continued all day with colorful, hypnotic, fugue-like choreography. After sunset, the entire village took on a slightly surreal ambience and reminded me of a night I spent in Michoacán, Mexico that I only remember as “the witches’ village.” Fires burning in dark streets. Scent of cedar. Someone told me that sometimes people go there and are never seen again. Only in Michoacán it was women I remember who filled up the street. In Smit, there were lots of men, many of them singing loudly or passed out on the grass after a long day of imbibing in the local rice beer.

Then the music started. I’ve been reading a book, The Evolution of Khasi Music, by Laynashai Syiem, so I think it began with the ka shawiang, a mournful flute used during death and religious ceremonies. A single drumbeat joined in and the village headmen in white turbans filed out into their seats, a golden goblet on the ground before each of them. Someone started a fire in the center of the field and the incessant doleful music kept on.

The goats were hauled in one by one with ropes, bleating and struggling. They knew what was in store. Fortunately, they did them in quickly, one quick beheading with the ax followed by a round of gunshot to signal their end. People held the smallest children on their shoulders for a better view.

As soon as they started dragging the first goat in, I knew I had to get out of there. It had been a bad idea to stay, but the place was packed; I couldn’t move. And with the first bloodshed, the crowd surged forward, yelling and cheering.

I don’t get violence, although I’ve been around my share of violent people, mostly, but not always, men. I get that blood unleashes some primal call of human nature, but that gene seems to have missed me. Before long there was a bloody circle around the headmen who sat impassively and watched. And still they dragged in more and more goats. I hear the final count was over 60. I was gone before they started on the chickens.

I rarely eat meat any more, but haven’t crossed over 100% to a vegetarian diet so it would be hypocritical to say I oppose slaughter of any kind. I’ve always felt hunting or raising your meat was a more honest way of going about it than buying a plastic-wrapped package from the grocery store. I once popped off a dozen quail, plucked and dressed them and simmered them in plum brandy sauce so I could experience the entire range of preparing a meal from live bird to French cooking. And I know those goats will feed villages all over Meghalaya and a lot of people will be grateful for the meat.

But for me, the ka shawiang and drumbeat will haunt my nights for a long time to come, and I don’t think I’ll ever eat mutton again.

For the lighter side of Nongrem:

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7 thoughts on “Blood and Sacrifice

  1. fascinating post.
    Animal sacrifice has been part of the human culture for so long.
    Even in places where food is scarce and raising a goat or cow takes so much effort it existed. Is it a way to channel violence? Is it giving the gods what you most cherish? is it a way to feed those unfortunate who don’t have their own chicken or goats?
    Leaving in a culture who long ago abandoned animal sacrifice, and much of it contact with nature and the life cycles in it – it is easy to judge and condemn such a ceremony. Your post is so fascinating because you are just watching, describing us what you see, and you feelings.
    Thank you for sharing this experience. Looking forward to reading more.

    Yanina

    • Yanina–These are great questions! I agree that animal sacrifice is one of those things without easy answers. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own cultural perceptions that we forget there might be more than one way of looking at things. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Makes you appreciate being able to be picky about what we eat here. Gorgeous pics kid! The lighting, color, angles – everything. Nat Geo quality & that’s no BS! Keep up the great work Jordan, TAB

  3. I have studied quite a bit about sacrifice, even though it is no longer a part of my own native culture… yet there is a lot of literature that remains from when it was practiced. To me, it seems that a lot of people who eat meat (I too, am a meat eater, but find that as I grow older, I eat it less and less), are living with denial about the nature of the act. They buy a clean cellophane wrapped peace of meat, and are able to ignore the process by which this food reaches their lips. In my studies, I discovered that the process of sacrifice made peace with the need to kill another living creature in order to eat its meat. There was a sense of identification between the person offering the sacrifice to his maker, and the animal he was sacrificing. The act of sacrifice put an accent on our knowledge that we too are here temporarily… and that we are flesh and blood.

  4. I agree completely that in today’s culture there’s a disconnect between our food and how it gets on our plate. Although I do have trouble watching killing or taking part in it, I can honor the intimacy of the act and, as you say, the reminder of our own impermanence here on earth.

  5. Pingback: Jewels of Autumn | Tucson 2012 | Jewelers Ethics Association

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