KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) -- Hundreds of thousands of Hindus gathered at a temple in southern Nepal on Tuesday for a ceremony involving the slaughter of more than 200,000 animals, a festival that has drawn the ire of animal-welfare protesters.
A Nepalese minister said it was the largest sacrificial slaughter of animals in the world.
Protests have occurred in recent weeks in towns near the Gadhimai temple and in the capital Katmandu by animals rights activists and other religious groups. However, Hindu organizers refused to halt the slaughter saying it was a centuries-old tradition.
More than 200,000 buffaloes, goats, chickens and pigeons will be killed Tuesday and Wednesday at the temple in the jungles of Bara district, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Katmandu, to honor the Hindu goddess Gadhimai.
Chief government administrator in the area Taranath Gautam said hundreds of thousands of people began lining up in the early hours of Tuesday, and the animal sacrifice rituals had started.
The Gadhimai festival is celebrated every five years. Participants believe sacrificing the animals for Gadhimai will end evil and bring prosperity. Many join the festival from the neighboring Indian state of Bihar, where animal sacrifices have been banned in some areas.
Critics say the killings -- carried out by slitting the animals' throats with swords -- are barbaric and conducted in a cruel manner.
"We were unable to stop the animal sacrifices this year, but we will continue our campaign to stop killings during this festival," said Pramada Shah of the Animals Nepal group.
Government minister Saroj Yadav said he believed the festival was the biggest animal sacrifice in the world. "We haven't heard a bigger number. ... We are certain this is the largest one," Yadav said.
The slaughtered animals are taken back by devotees to their villages and eaten during a feast. The meat is considered blessed and consuming it protects them from evil.