By Bibbi Abruzzini
KATHMANDU, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) -- The crowd has gone crazy when a bull enters the sand-covered arena running full speed before locking horns with another half-ton beast. You might think we are in Spain, but this is bullfighting right into the Himalayan foothills.
Betting is illegal in Nepal, but police often turn a blind eye towards it during the annual bullfight festival in Taruka, Nuwakot, 80 km north of Kathmandu.
"Bullfighting is an important component of the cultural heritage of Nepal and has remained untarnished over the centuries. People bet small or large amounts of money on bulls based on how much cash they have in their wallets," Sanju Thapa, a spectator told Xinhua.
Every year, spectators flock to see the animals fight at the Maghe Sankranti festival which brings an end to the ill-omened month of Poush when all religious ceremonies are forbidden, and marks the coming of warmer weather.
Nepali-style bullfighting is fairly different from the well- known Spanish version, as bulls and men work in tandem against other teams. In a match, bulls shove, butt and grunt against each other until one of them gives up or turns its back.
Around fourteen bulls took part in the competition this year in a ring overlooking the stunning terraced hillsides of Nuwakot in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 on Wednesday.
The bulls are selected when they are calves and are trained to fight at the annual fiesta. Krishna Prasad Sigdel has already competed twice with his bull.
"I am a farmer and I usually use my bull to work the fields. Bull fights are just for entertainment. I can compete with the same bull for up to three years," says Sigdel. "I do not accept bets for my bull, but if I win I will receive a cash prize from the organizers," he says.
Legend has it that the tradition began after the maternal uncle of Jaya Prithivi Bahadur Singh, a monarch of the ancient Bajhang kingdom in what is now western Nepal, used to organize bullfighting to welcome his nephew to his maternal home in Nuwakot.
Nevertheless, the spectacle is not without its critics, most notably the Animal Welfare Network Nepal, which argues that bulls in the past have sustained broken bones and that bullfighting goes against Nepal's culture of revering animals.
Tihar, one of the country's major festivals, is dedicated to worshipping animals. One day is dedicated to the bull as the vahan or vehicle of Lord Shiva, a tradition which is in sharp contrast with the bullfighting festival. Bullfighting was banned 20 years ago in neighboring India, but the tradition seems increasingly popular in Nepal.