NEPAL - Hordes of Hindu worshippers were Friday slaughtering thousands of animals in a remote corner of Nepal to honour their goddess of power, defying a chorus of protests from rights activists.
Sword-wielding devotees have poured into the village of Bariyapur near the Indian border which will become the world's largest abattoir during the two-day festival, with animals ranging from buffaloes to rats butchered.
"It is very festive here, everyone is excited," said head priest Mangal Chaudhary at the slaughter site near a temple devoted to Hindu goddess Gadhimai.
Animal carcasses and severed heads were piling up in a large field near the village where thousands of devotees were carrying out the sacrifices, eyewitnesses told AFP.
"It is very bloody... you can hear the animals moaning," said Rameshwor Mehta, 50, who was waiting to offer his prayers.
Worshippers on the first day were sacrificing mainly buffaloes, thousands of which have been coralled into holding pens in the field, before moving on to other animals.
Sita Ram Yadav, a 55-year-old farmer who had travelled three hours to attend the festival, said the atmosphere was "like a carnival" with devotees packing the area.
"I am offering a goat to Gadhimai to keep my family safe. If you believe in her, she grants your wishes," Yadav told AFP.
Worshippers from Nepal and neighbouring India have spent days sleeping out in the open and offering prayers to the goddess at a temple decked with flowers in preparation.
Pools of blood
The festival kicked off at midnight amid tight security, with the ceremonial killing of a goat, rat, chicken, pig and a pigeon.
Some 1,200 police personnel were patrolling the village and the field where sacrifices were taking place to control crowds gathered to watch.
Excited devotees attempted to scale a five-foot high (1.5 metre) wall erected around the slaughter site, while police worked to keep the area clear 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," Malla told AFP.
An estimated 300,000 animals 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.
The spectacle leaves pools of blood across the temple grounds, the air thick with the stench of raw meat, while authorities eventually dump buffaloes' heads into a large, freshly dug pit.
The goat and chicken flesh is distributed to devotees and villagers, while contractors bid to buy the buffalo and animal hides.
Animal rights activists accused temple authorities of "cashing in on people's beliefs".
"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.
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".