KATHMANDU - Sword-wielding Hindu devotees will transform a remote corner of Nepal into the world's largest abattoir this weekend when they slaughter hundreds of thousands of animals in defiance of a growing chorus of protests.
Animal rights activists say the butchering of animals ranging from buffaloes to rats in the village of Bariyapur amounts to mass cruelty while local residents say the stench of death leaves them struggling to breathe.
But despite intervention from India's Supreme Court, which has ordered a ban on buffalo exports, big crowds are expected at the two-day Gadhimai Festival in southern Nepal, close to the border between the two countries.
The festival, which takes place every five years and begins Friday, sees hundreds of thousands of worshippers from both countries flock to Bariyapur's temple in the hope of appeasing the Hindu goddess of power.
An estimated 300,000 animals, including chickens, ducks, pigeons and pigs, had their heads chopped off or throats slit during the last festival in 2009, making it the world's biggest sacrifice of animals at any one site.
According to legend, the first sacrifices in Bariyapur were conducted several centuries ago when the Hindu goddess 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.
The practice of ritual sacrifice has a long history in the conservative, largely Hindu Himalayan nation, with devotees offering goats and buffaloes to gods during major festivals in the hope of bringing health and happiness.
"There are people who say we shouldn't sacrifice animals, but we have our beliefs," Gopal Adhikari, a 36-year-old civil servant who is offering up a goat to be slaughtered this year, told AFP.
"I had asked Gadhimai to help solve property complications of my family and she granted my wish" at a previous festival.
Local priest Mangal Chaudhary, who says he is the tenth generation of his family to serve at the temple, says the number of devotees is increasing.
"We don't force anyone to sacrifice... People come of their own free will," Chaudhary told AFP.
But activists say organisers' main motivation is making money, accusing them of increasing the number of sacrifices so they can sell the meat.
"There is nothing spiritual or religious about this. It is all a money game," Gauri Maulekhi, from India's People for Animals group, told AFP.
Unlicensed traders and pilgrims who cross the porous border are responsible for supplying some 70 per cent of the buffaloes sacrificed, according to temple authorities.
Around 70 people have been arrested and 1,410 animals seized by Indian authorities since the court's decision in October, according to local police guarding the border.
'Difficult to breathe'
While some locals say the festival is an integral part of their history, others say it is a source of distress.
Pawan Kumar Byayut, who lives in the neighbouring village of Kalaiya, said it was a "disturbing experience".
"The grounds are bloody after the sacrifice. The air carries a strange stench, I can smell it even from my home... it gets difficult to breathe," Byayut told AFP.
"It is very heart-breaking to watch the animals suffer, to see the look in their eyes." 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".
Gopal Adhikari, who also lives in Kalaiya, acknowledged that pools of blood could be seen around the temple but claimed local residents were not bothered.
"It doesn't affect the people, we are used to it here," said Adhikari, who will himself join in the sacrifice.
Rights activists have taken up positions along parts of the border in an attempt to dissuade worshippers crossing over.
But the activists have themselves been accused of trampling over tradition.
"I am not in favour of the random slaughter of animals but we have to be sensitive to the historical and cultural aspects" of the festival, Subhash Ghimire, editor in chief of Republica newspaper, told AFP.
"I have never seen such an outcry for Thanksgiving... Why is the reaction so different?" While Nepal's government has ignored calls for a ban, it has not offered any financial support to the temple trust this year after donating 4.5 million rupees (S$59,000) in 2009.