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Nepal’s Animal-Sacrifice Festival Slays On. But Activists Are Having an Effect.

BARIYARPUR, Nepal — The animals were bused to southern Nepal in the thousands: rats, starved goats and pigeons stuffed in bags.

“It’s always fun to behead animals,” said Ram Aashish Das, who said he had slaughtered 30 buffalo this week. “If the tradition is so bad, why are so many people coming here?”

For centuries, the story goes, thousands of animals have been sacrificed in the town every five years to appease the goddess Gadhimai, who many believe has the power to grant wishes. Hindu pilgrims have long made it a point to come witness the slaughter. (Though killing cows, a sacred animal to Hindus, is prohibited in parts of India and Nepal, slaughtering water buffalo does not carry the same taboo.)

But this year’s festival has played out differently. Nepal’s central government refused to fund the event, citing a Supreme Court ban on supporting animal sacrifices. In recent days, activists and police officials have gathered along Nepal’s border with India, from where many of the animals are illegally smuggled, and tried to block trucks from passing through.

Their efforts have paid off. In 2009, during a particularly brutal festival, up to 500,000 animals were slaughtered. Five years later, the number was reduced to 30,000. And on Tuesday, this year’s heaviest day for sacrifices, about 3,500 buffalo were killed, activists said. Those numbers will increase when the rest of the sacrificed animals are counted, but are unlikely to reach 30,000.

“The suffering of these animals is so upsetting,” Alokparna Sengupta, Humane Society International’s managing director in India, said in a statement. “They have endured exhausting journeys to get here and are paraded in front of a baying crowd as all around them they witness other animals being decapitated, one by one.”

“People come here with animals and fear that something bad may happen if their promise to the goddess is not delivered,” said Birendra Yadav, the secretary of the festival’s organizing committee. “We are not encouraging people to sacrifice animals, but neither can we reject it.”

Locals believe the Gadhimai festival started around 265 years ago, when a Nepali farmer called Bhagwan Chaudhary had a dream that his problems could be solved if he offered blood to the goddess Gadhimai. For the initial sacrifice, he lanced five points on his body.

Since then, the metrics have changed, with animal blood replacing human blood, and Mr. Chaudhary’s descendants assuming leadership positions in the temple. Today’s Gadhimai festival has become so popular that wealthy businessmen and politicians have constructed welcome signs along the road leading to Bariyarpur.

Despite security patrols along Nepal’s porous border with India, dozens of trucks arrived in town carrying animals shriveled from dehydration and lack of food. Buffalo were transported using tractors. Goats and pigeons were moved in containers strapped to the roofs of buses.

About six hours later, when every buffalo had been killed, the butchers emerged from the arena with blood-soaked feet.

“Only good and happy people come here,” said Jaya Kumar Ram, a Nepali pilgrim standing outside the enclosure. “Because of blessings from the goddess, I have four children now and they are all in good health.”

As evening fell, festival organizers began preparations to move the carcasses.

They would bury the heads near the temple complex, and ship the skins and meat for sale in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. Then they would transform the field once again, into a ground for soccer and cricket matches.

Kai Schultz contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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