Dr Ajaz Anwar on the Lahori culture of celebrating Eid ul Azha
Sacrificial Eid is a special festive occasion. It is announced as the retired grandpa struggles to get the reluctant ram down the tonga. It is greeted by the children, later caringly bathed and decorated with henna, covered with a colourful silk chador and flying gas balloons. It is the honorary state guest of the city till the Eid day.
The animal is allowed to be sheared of its wool before the Chand Raat, which in this case falls 10 days ahead of the Eid day. These specialist barbers at the ‘Goat beauty salons’ can fashion out the gringo and crew-cuts while the hapless animal lies pinned to the ground. Camels too are covered with geometrical and floral motifs resembling ajrak. Bulls with Eid Mubarak written with henna on the sides of their rib cages add to the festive ‘graffiti’. Many of these animals sport tinkling bells around their necks or at the ankles.
Elsewhere, goats, sheep, rams, dumbay and chhatray arrive from different parts of the country — Kashmir, Balochistan, Sindh, KPK and the Punjab — all varieties are available at the designated markets and with even street vendors. Bulls, cows and camels too are available to be shared. Prospective customers check into the dental health of the animals to determine their age. The animals with swollen stomachs clearly are fed on salted water by the dealers. We came to know of this trade secret as we purchased a sheep from the public livestock stall set up on Cooper Road. On our way to our home on a rickshaw, it excreted lots of fluids and we had to apologise continually, but the driver was courteous enough to ignore his vehicle being thus lubricated from the inside. Perhaps, he had hoped for a share in sawaab.
The purchasers hire vehicles and head towards their respective residences where the children gather around and greet the princely creatures. Fodder shops are also set up in different localities. Some veterinarians, both certified and quacks, are available for all sorts of emergencies. A day before the festival they are led to patron-saint of the city i.e. Data Sahib or Shah Abul Mu’ali or Mian Mir.
The sad part is that many people feed their expensively purchased sheep the newly planted saplings. These expensive animals are more to show our social status or buying power. Some families offer several animals in one go, many are ‘posthumous’ offerings. Mutton legs are presented to the affluent. Sometimes the same body parts may return to the original owner while doing the rounds. Raan roast service is a roaring business for many weeks after the Eid. Much meat mostly ends up in deep-freezers. This is against the spirit of sharing with the needy.
Rams are part of the Lahori culture. Many enthusiasts buy and adopt another lamb soon after the Eid to be raised over the year. They are well-fed and lovingly taken for a walk every morning. While markhor is a declared national animal of Pakistan, it is protected and offered as a trophy to the highest bidder, for the benefit of the community. Marcopolo sheep too is protected, and so is ibex.
Some rams with otherwise threateningly lethal horns can be seen having friendly fights. As a child, I used to take around a stoutly built ram with big spiral horns, holding it by the ear while people looked on with horror. It belonged to our neighbour Jeeja, and I used to feed it jalebis from a sweetmeat shop. I was sorry when it was slaughtered. I refused to eat its meat, lest it should say ‘et tu…...’
Some sheep also have round horns too big for the animal. Before the coming of Bakelite and other plastic accessories, teapots used to have handles fashioned out of sheep horns.
An appointment is made with the butcher days in advance. As soon as the Eid prayers are over, water in the sewerage lines already is red and everyone runs after the butcher. He slaughters all the animals in a spree and, promising to return soon, disappears into the neighbouring localities for more clients. He returns only in the afternoon. In the meantime, those wanting the pelts keep pestering, though it is the domestic servants who had looked after the animal, who deserve it the most.
While the real leather shoes cost a fortune, the dealers buying skins from the poor offer only a pittance. Skinning of the sheep comes from much expertise. After hanging the animal upside down, holding a knife in his mouth, the butcher gradually removes the covering. It is here that those not qualified to do the job are exposed. Many turn out to be carpenters and cobblers or even masons faking to be butchers. Consequently, much damage is done to the pelt and the meat is not properly cut and the bones get smashed.
The crows on electric poles and cats over the walls wait impatiently for their share. The maid servant holding metal containers gives out threatening instructions. Soon delicious aromas from the meat being cooked or barbecued in the kitchen change the atmospheric potpourri. The senior maid arranges portions to be distributed in a big tray, covered with an almost see-through muslin cloth and goes around the neighbourhood distributing the meat and getting some Eidi in exchange.
While drains of the locality get choked with rotting fodder and animal excretions, the blood and waste body parts may be a source of obnoxious smell and cause many to slip over.
Some of these princely animals die of overeating, their carcasses may have to wait a couple of days to be lifted by the sanitary staff, because of the holidays. Of course, vultures, the most efficient scavengers, become extinct long ago, much to the dismay of Ardeshir Cowasjee. Many homo sapiens too have to queue up at gastro-intestinal specialists’ facilities.
During calamities like floods, earthquakes and, currently the coronavirus epidemic, some appeal that the money for the sacrificial animals be donated to relief funds. It might be pointed out that livestock herders breed and raise the special animals hoping to make decent profits and it is their main source of income during the year. If people don’t buy their livestock, with not much sale, unable to bear expenses to take them back to the villages, they would be forced to sell their animals to the butchers who would offer only a pittance.
Moreover, this religious obligation is also a cultural ritual. Many have-nots get to enjoy meat and make up for some of their protein deficiency on this occasion. However, great care must be taken not to slaughter the animals in front of children.
Every year, the city authorities try to set up markets or selling points for the animals. Some security arrangements and water and fodder and veterinary services are made available there. However, much is left to be desired in terms of hygiene and countering diseases. This year, such markets have been set up in designated, far-flung areas in view of the pandemic.
The village folks arriving with their animals from distant areas in scorching heat risk their animals dying of hunger and thirst. They also have to bear extra travel and transport expenses. The buyers too have to explore different markets and make logistic arrangements to transport their purchases. A cow bundled into a mini-truck or a camel struggling while tied behind a vehicle is a case fit for the long defunct Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
This year, the local regulators have been extra vigilant and strict, to the extent of being vindictive and cruel. There have been reports of illegally set up tents which were not only uprooted but put to fire along with bamboos and tarpaulins, leaving the poor traders and the animals to suffer. This sheer cruelty is against the spirit of Islam and humanity.
Eid ul Azha is also an occasion to raise funds for charitable organisations that solicit donations in the form of pelts and meat and even animals. They also offer services to slaughter animals and deliver the requisite meat shares, hassle-free. Besides, they ensure that no animal parts are wasted, and even the blood is collected to be used for chicken feed. The neighbourhood, therefore, has no choked drains and the carnivorous birds and animals too observe social distancing. The only losers on that day are those selling cheel gosht.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Jeeja who caringly raised a lamb every year)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]