By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Sword-wielding Hindu devotees in Nepal began slaughtering thousands of animals and birds in a ritual sacrifice on Friday, ignoring calls by animal rights activists to halt what they described as the world's largest such exercise.
More than 80 percent of Nepal's 27 million people are Hindus, but unlike most of their counterparts in neighboring India, they frequently sacrifice animals to appease deities during festivals.
Authorities deployed hundreds of police personnel to make sure there were no clashes between activists and the devotees.
"It is a ritual connected with people’s faith," said Yogendra Dulal, an assistant administrator of the Bara district, where the temple is located. "We can’t hurt their sentiments and ban the practice."
Tens of thousands of people flocked to the ceremony, which is held every five years at the Gandhimai temple near the border with India. About 500,000 animals are killed during the event, rights group Humane Society International estimates.
Worshippers believe the animal sacrifice, meant to appease the Hindu goddess of power, brings them luck and prosperity.
The ritual began at dawn with a ceremonial "pancha bali" or the sacrifice of five animals, comprising a rat, a goat, a rooster, a pig and a pigeon.
About 5,000 buffaloes were held in an open-air pen prior to being beheaded by butchers using swords and large curved knives.
Thousands of goats and chickens will also be sacrificed before the festival ends on Saturday, temple officials said.
The heads of the sacrificed animals will be buried in a huge pit while the animal hides and skin will be sold to traders who have contracted to buy them.
"It is not proper to kill animals in the name of religion," Uttam Kafle, of rights group Animal Nepal, told Reuters by telephone from the site.
"We are trying to convince the people that they can worship at the shrine peacefully and without being cruel to animals."
India's Supreme Court recently asked the government to stop the illegal movement of animals into Nepal for the ceremony.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez)