From Delhi to Assam: Am I in India Anymore?
I’ve been on hiatus from writing on my own blog for nearly six months, but only because I’ve been sitting on a computer for more than 13 hours a day, so I didn’t care to spend more time on my laptop, writing on my blog. But happily I have flown the coop all the way to Northeast India, the land of tropical rainforests and tribals, a place full of scope for writings and musings.
For the past six months, I was stationed in Delhi, India, working for a nonprofit called Operation ASHA, an Indian-based NGO that treats tuberculosis. After a surfeit of deskwork, I left and joined an arts collective and documentary group called Artefacting. Established as a U.S. nonprofit through the Brooklyn Arts Council in 2010, founder Alex White Mazzarella, and his partner from the Netherlands, Arne de Knegt have developed four projects between the United States and India. The projects are designed to put art into “social practice,” a concept that I’ll elaborate on in my second post (also to be posted on the Artefacting website). So, what am I doing in the far reaches of India? Documenting through writing, photo and video the cultural struggles of the Northeast peoples to adapt and integrate with modern society. We’ll be concentrating on themes such as urbanization vs. tribal living, the change between generations of tribals, and what it means to preserve culture in the modern world. Our questions will take us through Assam and onto its neighboring state, the wild Nagaland, which borders Burma to the north and Bangladesh to the south.
Our base is Guwahati, Assam, the largest metropolis in the Northeast, with a population numbering just under 1 million people. We’ve met our local guides and translators, Thanmoy, Himangshu, and Adish, who will be with us for the duration of the project. In just five days, they’ve already introduced us to the differences the make Northeast such a separate and distinct part of India. For example, Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, although of course it is the most religiously diverse country in the world, it’s still a Hindi-majority country. The Northeast is less Hindu, but the Hinduism that does exist here departs from mainstream practice in the mysticism, folklore and even black magic that is still subscribed to hearkening back to Hinduism’s roots in paganism and animism. On Wednesday, the three Guwahati boys took us to the famous Kamakhya temple, the site famous for Trantrikism and animal sacrifice.
I’ve been to at least three dozen temples during my time in India, they’re literally on every street corner, so I wasn’t too impressed when I first walked into the Kamakhya Temple after a five kilometer hike up the mountain. We wandered through the large temple complex, observing newly-wed couples receiving blessings, Tantrik priests with human skull jewelry meandering slowly through the crowds, and oddly enough, hordes of goats and pigeons freely roaming the temple patios. I turned a corner to the inner shrine and stepped onto the small patio. I looked right and my stomach lurched a bit when I saw a headless cow with the blood still seeping from its neck lying in the middle of the patio, incense surrounding it while temple caretakers sat on benches beside it. Curious, I went in for a closer look. “Wow, I didn’t realize they would be doing animal sacrifices today,” I said to my colleague, Fabrice (a photographer from London but with Indian roots).
In the next moment we looked around as we heard squealing. Two men hauled a squirming goat up to a platform with a suspiciously guillotine-looking device in the center. Lying beside the chopping block was a large machete. I was definitely not ready for this. “Ohhh, think we should stay for this?” Fabrice asked uneasily.
Well, too late. We raised our cameras (fortunately no one stopped us) and managed to snap a few photos of the poor goat getting his head chopped off. At least it was swift and clean. Although we were certainly stepping in more blood and other bodily fluids in our bare feet than I cared to think about.
The idea behind the animal sacrifice at the Kamakhya Temple is to bring good luck to those who offer animals, either goats, pigeons or even cows for slaughtering on the temple’s holy premises. The animals are systematically beheaded one at a time, skinned, cut into pieces, and placed into canvas bags to take home for, presumably, home consumption. All parts of the body are sent home with the families except for the head, which is offered to the gods within the inner shrine during puja.
The whole casualness in the face of death was very reminiscent of Varanasi, where the dead were sent onwards to the afterlife in serenity and peace. Granted, the animals’ death in the Kamakhya Temple was more violent and bloody than serene, but there was the same calmness and naturalness about death as part of life that exists in Varanasi, although in a cruder form.
The first week in India’s “wild” Northeast has certainly been different than anything I’ve experienced of India so far, but if the past seven days are any indication, I can’t wait to experience more.