Rhys Blakely in Mumbai – The Times

Plans to sacrifice more than 500,000 animals during a two-day religious festival in Nepal this month have met with the wrath of animal rights activists, who have called for the 300-year-old ritual to be banned.

Every five years the tiny village of Bariyapur near Nepal’s southern border with India is swamped with blood as hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees flock to the local temple to take part in what is thought to be the world’s biggest ritual slaughter.

This year it is expected that about 500,000 animals, including about 25,000 buffaloes, will be offered to Gadhimai, a Hindu goddess, by devotees who hope she will answer their prayers in return. Proceedings begin with the sacrifice of two wild rats, a cockerel, a pig, a goat and a lamb.

Supporters of the Gadhimai Fair say there is no question of them departing from a centuries-old tradition. Devotees can then bring their animals into the temple for ritual purification before taking them into the grounds where the beasts’ throats are slit.

“The festival will lose its charm and become meaningless if we break with tradition,” Mangal Chaudhary Tharu, the temple’s head priest, said.

This year, however, the temple authorities face a more powerful set of opponents than ever before:an international group of activists who include Brigitte Bardot, the French actress, and a 17-year-old Nepalese boy whose followers believe he is the reincarnation of Lord Buddha. Last year thousands of pilgrims flocked to a remote jungle in southeast Nepal to see Ram Bahadur Bamjan when he emerged from the forest after vanishing from view for a year. Dubbed “Buddha Boy” by the press, he first garnered headlines in 2005 when tens of thousands of devotees travelled to see him as he sat cross-legged amid the roots of a tree for nearly ten months — without, it was claimed, food or water.

This week he spoke out against the ritual slaughter, with a spokesman saying that Bamjan was “disturbed at the thought of such mass killings in the neighbourhood”. “The campaign is producing results,” the spokesman added. “Three villagers have already handed over three buffaloes to us which were intended for sacrifice at the fair, saying they have had a change of heart.” The Kathmandu Post also suggested that some devotees were having second thoughts. “Many people are in a dilemma: whether or not to bring animals for sacrifice — they fear that the issue might trigger clashes during the fair,” it said.

Opponents of the ritual say that it will harm the reputation of Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. Pramada Shah, of Animal Welfare Network Nepal, said: “By perpetuating such a mass massacre in the name of religion, culture and tradition in the 21st century, we are projecting Nepal as barbaric.” Activists have also claimed that the slaughter is a health hazard. Govinda Tandon, of the Stop Animal Sacrifices Alliance, said: “There are rivers of blood for months with carcasses lying everywhere. The grounds are dominated by vultures, while the stench makes life miserable for people living nearby. The only people who benefit are the skin traders who bid for the pelts.”

Most observers think it is unlikely that the Nepalese Government, which has pledged about $60,000 (£36,500) for the festival, will intercede. Indeed, an influx of “sacrifice tourists” are expected from India, where ritual slaughters are banned in several states.

The temple priest Mangal Chaudhary Tharu, whose family has presided over the festival for four generations, said: “We are not forcing devotees to sacrifice animals. It is an age-old practice and it must continue.”

Culture clashes

• This not the first time that animal sacrifice has sparked controversy in Nepal. In September 2008 Kathmandu was gripped by riots after the Government decided not to pay for 108 cattle and goats that were due to be ritually beheaded as part of the annual Hindu festival of Dashain.

• Demonstrators, mostly drawn from Kathmandu’s Newar community, barricaded streets with burning tyres and clashed with police who deployed teargas

• After three days of protests, the Government backed down and agreed to provide the livestock .



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