The Bonalu festival of Telangana is one of the iconic celebrations of the state, dating back to a cholera epidemic in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad in the 1800s.
Legend has it that Mahankali, the temple deity, saved the cities from a cholera epidemic in exchange for her idol being installed in the city. The annual festival has since become a hotbed of Telangana pride and is considered a state festival by many. Symbolism and ritual dominate Bonalu. As part of the ‘festivities,’ a cruel ritual takes place every year – in the name of religion. It is a tradition that continued over generations. It takes place every year in it’s most brutal form.
***Rituals require performers, and one is found every year who enacts the role of Potaraju – brother of Mahankali. In a procession along the city streets, he bares his tongue and attempts to imbibe the spirit of Potaraju and Mahankali within him. This requires a blood sacrifice. Identifying the exact role of this individual is tricky – for he is playing a part, enacting the role of Mahankali’s brother. Such personification and enactment is part of Indian cultural ritualism – the documentary ‘Monsoon Oracle’ explores these themes in depth.
In this ritual, Ramdas, a security guard by day takes on the role of Potaraju, the Mahankali’s brother/ protector. Smeared with Yellow paint and turmeric, an intoxicated Ramdas runs around the temple with two whips in his hand till he gets possessed by the spirit. People around him hold a sheep on their shoulders and show the animal to him. After a few rounds, the animal is held down in front of the actor, who gnaws into its throat with his teeth.
It takes a lot of time to kill an animal this way, for the human jaw is not designed to rip and tear flesh out in the more efficient manner of full-fledged carnivores. With every successful bite, he spits into the air as the crowd cheers him on. The sheep dies a slow and violent death as its throat is picked apart by one man. He does so to an enraptured audience. The crowds cheer on, filming him on their mobile phones. Many seek his blessings after the deed. One even slips him a bottle of Old Tavern whisky, to wash down the taste of hard-earned death. This is cruel torture inflicted on an animal, in the name of God, tradition and identity. The same ritual is performed at multiple temples – with the actor performing several such sacrifices in one day, at different temples and places of worship.
Animal sacrifice, not-so-strictly speaking, is illegal in India. Or is it? The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 has no explicit section on animal sacrifice, dealing instead with general cruelties. In Chapter III, Section 11 of the Indian Penal Code, it is considered punishable ‘If any person (a) beats, kicks, overrides, overdrives, overloads, tortures or otherwise treats any animal so as to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering or causes, or being the owner permits, any animal to be so treated’. However, the Act seems wary to get involved into religious matters, as in Section 28, it states”
Nothing contained in this Act shall render it an offense to kill any animal in a manner required by the religion of any community.
So it’s a clean chit then? It is no wonder that when voices are raised against various forms of animal abuse, they are so easily adapted into communal arguments. For example, take Jallikattua, a bull-fighting ritual in Tamil Nadu that was banned, unbanned and then banned again to a cacophony of argument. It raised the spectre of religious invulnerability to law.
Similarly, when a petition was filed against the slaughter of animals during Bakrid, questioning the constitutionality of Section 28, it was struck down by the Supreme Court. The Court even seems to suggest that discouraging sacrifice might affect the rainfalls.
The Act itself carves out exception for animal sacrifices carried out for religious purposes. There are many communities in villages which feel that animal sacrifice ritual brings them rain. If they do not do it, then there might be no rain.
Clearly, the rights of the animal itself are lost in the process. The debate on animal rights requires a dose of individual volition, not community-politics.
A similar ritual in Chandi Mandir, Dehradun, was stopped in 2014. According to a temple priest, ‘a hue and cry was made by many during this time of the year, and it disturbed me and others in the temple’.
For many Indian meat-eaters themselves, the manner by which the animal is killed affects their choice. Jhatka, where the animal is killed in a single swift decapitating blow, is considered the appropriate method for some Hindus, whereas Muslims require Halal meat (where the animal’s throat is slit and it is bled to death). The debate is split as to which is the more humane. Vegans would argue that abhorring meat altogether would do the job just fine.
Animal suffering certainly exists in various forms, lurking behind our everyday. From the meat and poultry industry to the culling of stray dogs in Kerala, India is rife with examples. However, each brings to the forefront a set of debates – interlinking religious, secular and ethical principles. Perhaps, if animals could speak and file Public Interest Litigations, we would receive a different perspective on the nature of our habits and rituals.
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