Sunday, October 07, 2007

Funeral for a yak

Creature discomforts
Chanspa, Leh, Ladakh

I just saw a yak die. It was so sad and horrible.

It was the beautiful, big black and white yak in the yard just down the road, the one I wrote about a few days ago. When I walked up, it was lying on its right side moaning, gnashing its teeth and gasping for breath.


About six people, men and women, were standing around helplessly listening to the hideous groans. At first I though I had stumbled upon some secret harvest ritual of life-and-death (an annual semi-animistic yak sacrifice, perhaps). The beast is so huge and hearty, how could it be sick from natural causes? Had they sliced the yak's throat and left it to bleed? Would they do such a thing?

No. "Kya hua?" I asked the elder Ladakhi man in the yard. In English he said, "It ate the urea." Urea - the fertilizer? "Yes. The urea was left in the yard." He lit a cigarette with resignation and walked around to the yak's other side.

"HREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEUGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!"screamed the yak. Its stomach was horribly bloated - ballooned into a big hump, looking like one of the surrounding mountains. It was still tied to its stake in the ground where it normally grazed. I thought it horrible that the animal would as it had lived, staked to the ground. I really wanted to leap the stone fence and cradle its enormous head just so it could die looking into someone's eyes. Maybe the people (for whom the yak was probably a considerable expense) would have thought a stupid foreigner was interfering.

And maybe I was, but I felt a real sense of waste and regret coming from the people. This was an unusually big and fine yak, and besides, one would have to be extraordinarily insensitive to not mourn the death of such a striking-looking creature.

I really look forward to seeing this yak every day. I felt like a new neighbor I'd barely gotten to know was dying in front of me, for such a stupid reason, and suffering so badly.

A man who was obviously the vet strode up, carrying two large vials of clear fluid and a giant syringe. He pushed various points on the yak's body and waved his hands in front of its eyes. Then he pronounced it "too late." The poison had been consumed hours ago and was now well on its way through the labyrinth of the poor animal's bowels.

"We could not get the doctor in time," a young Ladakhi lady wearing a headscarf said to me (of her own volition). "Because, it is Sunday."

Then with a mighty roaring moan, the yak's legs raised a bit, sticking straight out; stiffened all the way down to the hooves as though it was bracing itself against the pain, and shuddered into collapse. He was gone.

As the enormous eyes glazed over, I began to think of the next step. The efficacy of eating yak meat on this occasion became obvious. After all, how on earth would they get that bulky body out of the stonewalled yard? Ten men couldn't drag it and it would never fit through the gate. I remember when horses died on the boarding farm when I was a kid, they had to bring a bulldozer to dig the hole big enough, then drag the corpse over unceremoniously and dump it in. That wasn't even available here.

The men moved away. Two women brought out what looked like old flowered bedsheets and covered the body, flower-side down, white side up.

A grandmother in her heavy goncha robe, with long grey braids, thick frosty glasses and toboggan hat, wobbled off down the street. She wailed aloud and beat her chest as though a human had died.

I stumbled into the nearest restaurant, which is an upmarket affair with new-age music playing and lovely views from the terrace. I had to tell someone.

"A yak just died," I said bluntly to the table of young "granola" tourists, obviously mountain bikers and hikers, seated there. As if to back up my claims, the grandmother's wails could be heard behind me."

"The one over there?" said a guy wearing a hand-knit hat. "We saw it every day." I nodded.

"Are you all right?" another guy asked. I thought that was sweet. I must have looked really shaken up.

On the next table, a group of seven sparrows twittered merrily and pillaged the sugar bowl. An innocent Jersey cow calf grazed oblivious across the lane just a few feet from the dead beast. I listlessly drank my coffee and ate porridge, watching the dancing sparrows fight over sugar grains.

Back out on the street, a gentle chocolate-coloured cow was dozing in the sun. I bent down and offered her a scratch behind the ears and chin. Instead of snorting and pushing my hand away, she appeared hypnotized by the touch. She raised her chin far into the air so I could scratch further. I stroked her long, lush eyelashes and wiped some sleep from her liquid eyes.

A central teaching of Buddhism is that "all sentient beings," every living moving creature, share a basic desire to be free of pain, suffering and discomfort. Hinduism says, "May all beings be happy, peaceful and free" (lokah samastaha sukhino bhavatu).

I was angry that someone would leave an animal to graze where fertilizer had carelessly been kept. Yak and cow dung is such good fertilizer, I didn't know people really bothered with other substances here. The illusion of tradition and "being one with nature" in Ladakh started to break down.

When I came back up the path a few hours later, the men were hacking apart the body. One man dug a hole to store the parts in (in frozen winter the ground is as good as a fridge). The others wielded axes. The roots of the legs were the size of bloody tree stumps and I covered my nose against the smell.

Wikipedia says this about urea:
It was the first organic compound to be artificially synthesized from inorganic starting materials, thus dispelling the concept of vitalism.

Urea can be irritating to skin and eyes. Too high concentrations in the blood can cause damage to organs of the body. Low concentrations of urea such as in urine are not dangerous.

It has been found that urea can cause algal blooms to produce toxins, and urea in runoff from fertilizers may play a role in the increase of toxic blooms.[1]

Repeated or prolonged contact with urea in fertiliser form on the skin may cause dermatitis. The substance also irritates the eyes, the skin and the respiratory tract. The substance decomposes on heating above melting point producing toxic gases. Reacts violently with strong oxidants, nitrites, inorganic chlorides, chlorites and perchlorates causing fire and explosion hazard.


Shantanu said...

Brings back a memory from childhood when a buffalo had fallen into a pit that had been dug to make the foundation of a building. It was in pain, and it was quite traumatic watching the poor thing moan in pain and roll its eyes. Thankfully, it ended well.

BTW, saw your comments on Indian sweets on DesiPundit. For milder sweets, you need to locate an authentic Bengali sweet shop: they usually make the Roshogolla, Sandesh, and a few other sweets milder than the usual Indian sweets. :-)

Sigma said...

I can understand that you were shaken - it must have been a sad experience.

Ashini said...

In a way, I'm glad you were there. As a blogger, you were able to share your experience so effectively and accurately with us. I remember your experience with the death of the goat. While this death seems so inconsequential in the grand scheme of everything, your post was beautiful. You brought it upfront to so many people.