NEW TAIPEI CITY (AFP) - Thousands of worshippers on Tuesday flocked to a controversial "holy pig" festival in Taiwan which sees the carcasses of giant overfed swine on display, a custom deplored by animal rights campaigners.
The annual ritual, slammed by activists as inhumane, marks the birthday of the Taoist god Zushi and is held in a square outside the temple in his name in the northern district of Sanhsia.
Local owners compete to display the largest pig, with the winner taking home a trophy.
To a fanfare of traditional music played on gongs and horns, five pigs - which had been killed the night before - were wheeled into the square on Tuesday, with the heaviest weighing 714kg.
Their decorated bodies, with the bristles shaved into patterns, were displayed upside-down in brightly decorated vans, tiny heads dwarfed by their bloated torsos.
"The pigs are presented to show our gratitude and respect to the god Zushi," Huang Chun-chi, who works at the temple, told AFP as visitors burned incense and took photos.
After the festival the carcases are taken home by their owners and the meat distributed to their friends, families and neighbours.
Animal rights activists say pigs are kept in small enclosures and hit on the snout to force them to keep eating.
"We strongly oppose 'holy pig' contests," Chu Tseng-hung, head of the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan, told AFP.
"Farmers have adopted inhumane methods to force-feed pigs to increase their weight."
Zushi has a strong following in the north of Taiwan and the centuries-old tradition is vehemently defended by organisers and worshippers.
The ritual is held by 20 other Taoist temples on the island on different occasions.
"The tradition has been misinterpreted by some animal rights groups," said Lee Kai-jui, a neighbourhood chief in Sanhsia who was also the first-prize winner of this year's contest.
"Our pig was raised in a normal way... I never overfed it," he added, saying that it was the particular breed which made the pig so large and he was proud of the animal.
"Holding this kind of ritual helps bring people together," he said.
But while thousands still attend, activist Chu said support was waning due to a growing awareness of animal rights and a lack of interest from younger generations, as well as scepticism over the festival contestants.
"In the past, many of the pig owners raised them on their own to show their respect and sincerity to the gods. Now many of them just buy pigs straight from farmers. This has made many people feel a lack of sincerity," he said.
Worshipper Chang Yung-hua, 46, said the scale of the Sanhsia festival had diminished.
"I remember more than 10 holy pigs were on display some time ago. The biggest one even went up to a record high of more than 1,000kg. Now the number has dropped. I hope it will not disappear some day."