Hindu worshippers have begun slaughtering thousands of buffalo as part of a religious ritual held every five years in southern Nepal, despite efforts to end the practice considered the world’s biggest sacrifice of animals at any one site.
The Gadhimai Festival – a two-day festival in honour of the Hindu goddess of power – kicked off in the early hours of Tuesday amid tight security, with the ceremonial slaughter of a goat, rat, chicken, pig and pigeon. A local shaman then offered blood from five points of his body.
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Following that, some 200 butchers with sharpened swords and knives walked into a walled arena bigger than a football field that held several thousand animals as excited pilgrims climbed trees to catch a glimpse.
“The sacrifices have begun today… We had tried not to support it but people have faith in the tradition and have come here with their offerings,” Birendra Prasad Yadav from the festival organising committee told AFP news agency.
Thousands of worshippers from Nepal and neighbouring India have spent days sleeping out in the open and offering prayers ahead of the event in Bariyarpur village, close to the Indian border.
“I believe in the goddess. My mother had asked her for the good health of my son,” one of them, Rajesh Kumar Das, 30, told AFP, holding a goat in his hand.
Sabu Sahani, 25, who travelled with his family for a day from India’s Bihar with a goat offering, said he was “happy to be here”. “The goddess listened to me. We did not have children, but my wife has now given birth to a daughter,” Sahani told AFP news agency.
An estimated 200,000 animals, ranging from goats to rats, were butchered during the last Gadhimai Festival in 2014.
Many were hopeful the centuries-old tradition would end after temple authorities announced a ban in 2015 and Nepal’s supreme court directed the government to discourage the bloodshed a year later.
But animal rights activists say government agencies and temple committees have failed to implement these rulings.
“The officials have let their personal beliefs rule over the court orders, they did not do enough to discourage the slaughters,” animal rights activist Manoj Gautam said.
Local priest Mangal Chaudhary, the tenth generation of his family to serve at the temple, did not comment on whether the temple supports this year’s mass sacrifice but said that the numbers in attendance are increasing.
“We will follow our traditions and perform the rituals in the temple. But what the devotees do outside is their own wish,” he said.
Indian border authorities and volunteers have in recent days seized scores of animals being brought across the frontier by unlicensed traders and pilgrims but this has failed to stop the flow.
According to legend, the first sacrifices in Bariyarpur were conducted several centuries ago when the goddess Gadhimai appeared to a prisoner in a dream and asked him to build a temple for her.