By South Asia correspondent Stephanie March, wires
Sword-wielding Hindu devotees in Nepal begin slaughtering thousands of animals in a ritual sacrifice, ignoring calls by animal rights activists to halt what they describe as the world’s largest such exercise.
The Gadhimai Mela festival is held in the remote border village of Bariyapur to honour Gadhimai, the goddess of power.
Devotees with swords are expected to kill thousands of animals in the two days of worship, including buffaloes, goats and rats.
Worshippers have gathered in the village for the festival which occurs every five years, ignoring animal rights activists who were holding a protest against the slaughter nearby .
“We are ready for the festival, everyone is in a celebratory mood,” said head priest Mangal Chaudhary at the slaughter site.
It was estimated 300,000 animals were killed when the ritual was last held in 2009, making it the world’s biggest sacrifice of animals at any one site.
The goat and chicken flesh is distributed to devotees and villagers, while contractors bid to buy the buffalo and animal hides.
Although India’s Supreme Court banned buffalo exports to Bariyapur, sparking initial fears of a shortage of animals, temple authorities said all preparations were in place.
Animal rights activists accused the temple holding the festival of “cashing in on people’s beliefs”, and have called for it to be abolished.
“They are extorting money … in the name of entry fees, parking, and so on,” said Manoj Gautam, president of Animal Welfare Network Nepal, who is in Bariyapur to protest against the ritual.
Some 1,200 police personnel were patrolling the village and surrounding area, to control crowds and avert possible clashes between worshippers and activists.
Authorities have also banned the sale of alcohol during the festival, according to local police official Lokendra Malla.
“It is a security issue, people get intoxicated and fight. We don’t want any of that,” Mr Malla said.
Worshippers from Nepal and neighbouring India have spent days offering prayers to the goddess at a temple decked with flowers in preparation.
According to legend, the first sacrifices in Bariyapur were conducted several centuries ago when Gadhimai appeared to a prisoner in a dream and asked him to establish a temple to her.
When he awoke, his shackles had fallen open and he was able to leave the prison and build the temple, where he sacrificed animals to give thanks.
A campaign to ban the festival has attracted support from celebrities including British actress Joanna Lumley and French movie legend Brigitte Bardot, who has petitioned Nepal’s president to end the “cruel tradition”.