Hundreds of thousands of Hindus gathered at a temple in southern Nepal on Tuesday for a ceremony involving the slaughter of more than 200,000 animals that has infuriated animal welfare protesters.
A Nepalese minister said it was the largest sacrifice of animals in the world. Protests by animals rights activists and other religious groups have occurred in recent weeks in towns near the Gadhimai Temple and in the capital, Kathmandu, but the organisers refused to halt the slaughter, saying it is a centuries-old tradition.
More than 200,000 buffaloes, goats, chickens and pigeons will be killed over two days at the temple in the jungles of Bara district, about 100 miles south of Kathmandu, to honour the Hindu goddess Gadhimai.
Taranath Gautam, the chief government administrator in the area, said hundreds of thousands of people began lining up in the early hours of yesterday morning and that the animal sacrifice rituals had started.
The Gadhimai festival is celebrated every five years. Participants believe that sacrificing the animals to Gadhimai will end evil and bring prosperity. Many people join the festival from the neighbouring Indian state of Bihar, where animal sacrifices have been banned in some areas.
Critics say that the killings, carried out by slitting the animals' throats with swords, are barbaric and conducted in a cruel manner.
"We were unable to stop the animal sacrifices this year, but we will continue our campaign to stop killings during this festival," said Pramada Shah of the Animals Nepal group, who is related by marriage to Nepal's deposed king.
She claimed that the festival could provoke a medical emergency. "The government must take immediate action to address the grave health risks of the mass sacrifice, including bird and swine flu, TB and food poisoning." Ms Shah added that the sacrifice would also "send out the message to the world that we are still a barbaric nation."
Government minister Saroj Yadav said he believed the festival was the biggest animal sacrifice in the world. "We haven't heard a bigger number... We are certain this is the largest one."
Devotees take the slaughtered animals back to their villages and then eat them during a feast. The meat is considered blessed and it is thought that consuming it will protect them from evil.