Animal sacrifice or Bali -as it is called in our village and the ones around it- is a ritual that has been followed for a number of generations in the mountains. I’m sure there are many places in India where this ritual has been quite popular and remains till date, but I can only tell you how it’s done in the hills. My Hometown Solan is a little over 2 and a half hours from the union territory of Chandigarh. It’s a humble town far from the hustle and bustle of cities like Delhi or Mumbai, surrounded by two enormous and strong mountains.
My story and your training, for that matter, doesn’t start in Solan. It begins in a small village of Arki -a part of Solan district- known as Larech. I know the names are hard to pronounce but believe me reaching there is even more challenging. It takes around six hours by Bus and four by car. That for reaching a place which is in the district of Solan only, as compared to Chandigarh which is in a different state altogether.
We reached the village two days before the planned sacrifice was going to take place. Actually, when you see it, it’s quite awkward to call it a village. Consisting of only four homes fashioned out of clay and stones all of which belonged to our family, the so-called village looked more like a small gathering of stone houses on afternoon tea. On a lazy afternoon with the sun moving slowly and a nimble wind blowing across the fields of wheat and rice owned by our family, my elder brother and I searched for a place to change. The house that we were supposed to live in was more or less like the other three houses, except for a teakwood flat roof and a sloped mud roof to complete a two layer protection for our delicate city heads.
Two hours later with the sun going down the horizon, we were huddled around a small fire in the field in front of the house. The elders were discussing the sacrifice that was to take place the other day. My brother left with his steel tumbler full of tea (Yes, tumbler not a cup, there are no cups in villages) and went sauntering into the fields. I thought he must already know the process. I was new to this Bali business, so I stayed to listen to my Uncle and the others.
“So is the goat ready Prem? You know we have to make him stout and plump before the sacrifice,” a person with a mustache and playful eyes asked my uncle between sips of tea.
“Yeah, Lata has taken the responsibility of feeding the animal. He’s been having a feast for the last three days I’m told.” My uncle answered with a smile. The others laughed loudly, apparently in praise of the actions of Lata, a cousin of mine.
“So where will we be taking him?” an older man with a white beard and a serious expression asked. I looked at my uncle.
“We’ll be taking her to the nearby village where there is a temple of Goddess Kali. The procession will leave here at ten in the morning.”
“We shall reach the temple well within the Muhurat then,” the older man commented. My mother later told me that muhurat means an auspicious time. Only during the pre-ordained time interval prophesized by a priest can the sacrifice be performed.
“Have you made sure that the rifle is in a good position for tomorrow? Sukhram will have to walk in at the lead of the procession with it,” the guy with the mustache asked. “Yeah, we can’t hope to perform a Bali without invoking the gods of the wild right? Plus it makes sure no one comes in front of the procession. That would be bad luck,” another elder from the crowd added with enthusiasm and small fits of cough.
“That’s all been taken care of. Don’t worry. The priest would be ready at the temple with all the necessary items. We just have to bring a bowl and a small sword,” said my uncle reassuring everybody.
The conversation was getting interesting by the second. I was 12 years old at the time and had no knowledge of how a sacrifice was performed. A procession involving a goat and a rifle with so many people going to a temple. I had seen a lot of religious gatherings and incantations till then, but I decided this one was entirely different. Why would you take a goat to a temple? How would she pray anyway? And what will she do with a sword? Before I could get any answers to my silent queries, my mother literally dragged my brother and me inside the house to eat our food and sleep.
The next day we woke up early. I and my brother along with my cousins from the village set off to discover the countryside; the fields of wheat and sunflower. The extent to which the farmland went was unreal. Till afar we could see the yellow layers of sunflowers glazing in the sun and shadowing the horizon. The fields of wheat although dull in color in front of the sunflowers had their own royal presence. Long but fluffy tips of the wheat flower swayed in the nimble wind as if welcoming us all.
We had a short lunch in a small hut situated between the fields. After that, we ventured back to the small gathering of houses. On the path, we met my aunt who was taking a herd of goats out for grazing. They looked like a happy bunch amongst the green mountain grass and a few handful of unripe maize. The beads of corn crackling in a reused milk-powder-can seemed to be the best way of attracting their attention and guiding them. The bunch of us picked up one of the smaller goats and went to a grass field adjoining our home.
“His name is Bitto. He’s so cute the entire village loves him,” said my cousin Lata with pride. “We even sneak off some corn every now and then for him. He’s quite fond of it,” added my other cousin. The goat merrily rubbed his snout in Lata’s face as if in agreement.
The afternoon went with us jollying around the grass field and playing with Bittoo. Even though I don’t particularly like goats and am quite fidgety around them, the little creature made me feel at home. Bittoo appeared to have the same affection for me as he quite often came and hid behind me; playing his own version of hide and seek with the others.
In the evening, our respective mothers came to take us away for dinner. Lata left Bittoo in the barn with the other goats and cows. It was sad for us to let him go, but the fear of my mother’s thrashing overpowered the urge to play with him. As I slept, I promised I would wake up early in the morning and take my cousins to the fields to play with Bittoo, before the official work of the day started.