Up to a million Hindu devotees have gathered in a village in Nepal to witness the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals in a mass sacrifice that has drawn widespread criticism.
Worshippers travelled long distances, many coming from India, to attend the two-day Gadhimai festival, which honours the Hindu goddess of power and takes place once every five years in southern Nepal.
A huge cry of “Long Live Gadhimai!” went up after the village temple’s head priest launched the event with the ritual sacrifice of two wild rats, two pigeons, a rooster, a lamb and a pig.
The crowd then rushed to a nearby field where 250 sword-wielding butchers were waiting to begin the mass slaughter of about 20,000 buffalo, brought by devotees to be sacrificed near the holy temple.
“This is a very special day for Hindu devotees,” head priest Mangal Chaudhary Tharu told AFP as the Gadhimai festival began.
“All the people who came here to worship Gadhimai have been waiting a long time for this day. I am very proud to be part of this event,” added Tharu, the fourth generation of his family to serve as a priest at the temple.
An AFP reporter at the scene said up to a million devotees were crammed into the area for the festival. Many were from India, where some states have banned animal slaughter for religious purposes.
Nepal’s government has refused to put a stop to what it says is a centuries-old religious tradition, despite a vocal opposition campaign from local animal rights activists who say the slaughter is needless cruelty.
Priests are preparing for the slaughter of more than 15,000 buffaloes and 300,000 birds, goats and sheep during the event, which starts Tuesday and is thought to be the biggest ritual sacrifice anywhere in the world.
Every five years, the village of Bariyapur, near Nepal’s southern border with India, hosts this religious festival dedicated to Gadhimai, the Hindu goddess of power.