Kathmandu: In a victory for activists, Nepalese temple authorities said Tuesday they would end a centuries-old Hindu tradition of mass animal slaughter that attracts hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
The festival, held once every five years, sees hordes of devotees from Nepal and India flock to a temple in the Himalayan nation`s southern plains to sacrifice thousands of animals in the hope of appeasing the Hindu goddess of power, Gadhimai.
"We have decided to completely stop the practice of animal sacrifice," said Motilal Prasad, secretary of the Gadhimai Temple Trust, which organises the celebrations.
"I realised that animals are so much like us -- they have the same organs as us... and feel the same pain we do," Prasad told AFP.
The practice of ritual sacrifice has a long history in Nepal, with devotees offering goats and buffaloes to gods during major festivals in the hope of finding health and happiness.
Some 2.5 million worshippers sacrificed an estimated 200,000 animals during the most recent instalment of the Gadhimai festival held last November in the village of Bariyapur near the Indian border.
"It won`t be easy to end a 400-year-old custom... but we have four years to convince people that they don`t need to sacrifice animals to please the goddess," Prasad said.
Animal rights activists applauded the decision, which came after years spent lobbying temple authorities and the Nepal government in a campaign that attracted support from celebrities including British actress Joanna Lumley and French movie legend Brigitte Bardot.
"It has been a long effort... we took a firm stand and it has finally worked," said Manoj Gautam, president of Animal Nepal Welfare Network.
"We realise that people have been victimised by superstition so building mass awareness is critical, but I am very hopeful that we will see a bloodless festival in 2019," Gautam told AFP.
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.