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: