One..five…20…100…500…1000. One lost count as nearly 25,000 buffaloes were sacrificed at Gadhimai Mela in Bara district of southern Nepal bordering India on Tuesday morning.
Protests by activists like French actress Brigitte Bardot and India's politician-cum-crusader Maneka Gandhi failed to have an impact as nearly 300 people armed with machetes and 'khukhris' butchered the animals to appease Goddess Gadhimai.
Held every five years, the Gadhimai Mela is called by some as the world's biggest animal sacrifice fair. It is attended by millions of devotees from across Nepal and neighbouring India and thousands of animals and birds are killed as part of a traditional ritual.
And it is no different this time around. An estimated 1.5 million devotees converged at the temple on Tuesday. Nearly 500,000 buffaloes, goats, roosters, pigeons and rats are expected to be sacrificed in two days.
"Animal sacrifice is part of religious and traditional beliefs and we are not going to stop this practice at any cost," said a priest at Gadhimai Temple refusing to divulge his name.
It was 9:15am when several priests accompanied by some authorised slaughterers sacrificed five buffalo calves after tying them to a wooden stake. Amidst shouts of 'Jai Gadhimai Ki', hundreds of devotees rushed forward to touch the spilled blood and apply it to their foreheads.
Forty-five minutes later, the mayhem began. The authorised slaughterers began killing nearly 25,000 buffaloes kept locked inside a half an acre field surrounded by eight-feet-high brick walls.
It was all blood and gore as the animals were slaughtered in quick succession. Such was the pace that within less than two hours all buffaloes kept inside the walls were slain.
And while the mass sacrifice was on inside the high walls, hundreds of goats were also slaughtered in open fields near the temple by people who were unable to buy buffaloes for the goddess.
"This year the number of animals seems to be less than last time. We managed to finish them off quickly," said 'licensed' slaughterer Rajinder Ram (38) who hails from nearby Parsa district and is here at the fair for the third time.
Like him nearly 300 others were given license by the Gadhimai Mela organising committee to perform the task of killing nearly 500,000 animals at the fair on the two auspicious days.
"I sacrificed a goat five years ago and was blessed with a daughter. This time I have brought a buffalo to thank the goddess," said Ram Avtar from Jharkhand who was at the fair with his wife.
Lallan Singh from Motihari in Bihar works as a driver in Delhi. He offered a buffalo calf seeking a good future for his 14-year-old son Anand. The reasons were diverse and the animals paid with their lives for their fulfillment. The sacrifice will continue on Wednesday as well.
There is no satisfactory answer as to why the mass sacrifices began. Locals say that a Tharu tribal Bhagwan Chaudhary had a vision of Goddess Gadhimai (another form of Goddess Kali) and set up the temple around mid eighteenth century.
The sacrifices were meant to appease the goddess. "But soon it came to be known that offering sacrifice at the temple could lead to fulfillment of wishes and large number of devotees started reaching here," said Sunil .