A centuries-old tradition of animal sacrifice in Nepal is coming to an end.
The organizers of the Gadhimai festival, held every five years to celebrate the Hindu goddess of power, said Tuesday that they would no longer carry out the ritual killing of goats and water buffalos – a victory for activists and a milestone in global efforts to promote animal welfare.
“This is a tremendous victory for compassion that will save the lives of countless animals,” Nepalese animal rights advocate Gauri Maulekhi said in a statement. “Animal sacrifice is a highly regressive practice and no nation in the modern world should entertain it.”
The Ghadimai festival has long drawn worshippers from Nepal and India to Bara District, about 100 miles south of the capital Kathmandu, to take part in the largest ritualized slaughter of animals in the world.
Last November, about 2.5 million devotees beheaded an estimated 200,000 goats and water buffalo over two days, all in the name of good health and happiness, Agence France-Presse reports. The next festival is due in 2019.
Legend has it that the goddess Gadhimai appeared to a prisoner in a dream and ordered him to build a temple to her. When the prisoner awoke, his shackles had fallen open and he did as instructed, offering animal sacrifices in thanks.
Animal rights groups, particularly Humane Society International India and the Animal Welfare Network Nepal, have long urged temple authorities to end the practice. In 2014, India’s supreme court ordered the country’s government to enforce a ban against illegal transportation of animals across the border for the Gadhimai festival. This reduced the flow of animals into Nepal, but failed to halt the slaughter.
Opponents of the ban argue that ending the practice would be an affront to tradition. “We cannot speak against it,” one official told CNN during last year’s festival. "This is something to do with culture."
Others say that activists have been so focused on animal rights that they have ignored the festival's celebration of Hindu culture and religion, as well as family ties, Kathmandu-based journalist Deepak Adhikari wrote for The Guardian in December:
Instead of delving deep into the belief system and probing why it has remained deeply rooted among the faithful, the animal rights activists have attempted to take over the festival through a cacophony of condemnation that is shrill and relentless. Aided by news media... these campaigners worry so much about the plight of the animals that they blissfully ignore the human suffering around them.
Mr. Adhikari proposed gradual reform: Temple and festival authorities should start by overseeing the humane killing of animals in designated slaughterhouses, eventually switching to symbolic sacrifices in which vegetables replace animals, he wrote.
The Gadhimai Temple Trust, which organizes the event, announced on Tuesday it would move to ban the practice for the festival’s 2019 celebration. “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,” Motilal Prasad, the trust’s secretary, told AFP.
“For generations, pilgrims have sacrificed animals to the Goddess Gadhimai, in the hope of a better life,” Ram Chandra Shah, the trust’s chairman, said in a statement. “For every life taken, our heart is heavy. The time has come to transform an old tradition. The time has come to replace killing and violence with peaceful worship and celebration."