By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu
The people of Nepal are celebrating their biggest national festival, Dashain.
A goat offering is a holy act for Hindu devotees
The 15-day annual religious feast marks the victory of the Hindu goddess Durga over a feared demon and symbolises the triumph of good over evil.
There are a wealth of rites in the goddess's name, and sacred grass is being grown in special pots all over the country to be used as a blessing this Sunday, the 10th and most important festival day.
Every Hindu home has been cleaned and decorated to welcome the goddess. The markets have been heaving as shoppers seek out new clothes and foodstuffs, and many thousands are returning to their home villages from the cities and from foreign countries to spend time with their families.
But increasingly voices are being heard questioning what takes place on its eighth and ninth days - this Friday and Saturday - when hundreds of thousands of animals are ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice for Durga.
The Dashain festival is a time of great merriment
Visible in the Kathmandu traffic among all the shoppers are youths walking with herds of goats; motorbikes with live chickens dangling from the sides; and trucks crammed with buffaloes arriving from India.
On Friday and Saturday, and especially during the night in between, known as "Kal Ratri" or the "Dark Night", thousands of these animals as well as sheep and ducks will be slaughtered across the nation.
Animals are killed in the smallest villages or in cities like Kathmandu, where the courtyard of the Taleju Temple, opened just once a year, will end up flowing with blood.
It will yield a feast of meat. But it is also said to have a religious meaning - the killing being a sacrifice to honour the goddess and prevent her anger in the year ahead.
The new dissenters are questioning both the scale and the methods of the killing.
An article in the Nepali Times weekly says most buffaloes, like smaller animals, are decapitated but the bigger ones are battered to death with a heavy hammer on the forehead.
A respected botanist, Dr Tirtha Shrestha - writing in the same paper - says that in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, pigs are skinned alive and their beating hearts offered to the temple, while in a nearby village people tear apart a live goat.
He asks what kind of people take pleasure in such cruelty, even suggesting that a society which treats animals so brutally will be brutal to human beings too.
"Decapitating a bleating buffalo or goat should not be the symbol of the Nepali civilisation," he says. "Why are we exhibiting such cruelty, and how does this reflect on our society?"
The festival is a time when families get together
Dr Shrestha accepts that to eat meat, animals must be killed.
"But why do we have to inflict such pain before we do so? This is not just inhuman, it is also against the law in many countries. It is morally wrong to torture fellow creatures under any circumstances, but to do so in the name of religion is a sin."
Another Nepali man, Arun Poudel, sending a mass email, picks up on this last theme.
He says people should stop killing animals in the name of Hinduism's respected goddesses and gods.
"Maybe the deities will start wanting human blood soon," he muses grimly.
Such sentiments are spreading. Although animal rights are not a major concern in Nepal, an animal protection group recently held a rally in the capital against the yearly tradition of animal sacrifices.
And, speaking to the BBC, one Nepalese journalist who has been a vegetarian for many years said he was delaying his visit to his village to avoid the killing.
"I can't stand the slaughter," he said. "If a goat is killed, I run away. When I was a small kid, I'd hide indoors all day or go to the jungle."
He believes about 1,000 animals will die in his small village in the hills where, he says, certain men have taken up the "hobby" of Dashain slaughtering and will provide the service for many households.
The Kathmandu Post newspaper reports on another group of dissenters. It says two entire villages in Gorkha, in west-central Nepal, have shunned sacrifices for as long as 90 years and gone largely vegetarian as they believe in non-violence.
At the moment, however, these voices are still few and far between.
Nepal is a country where most people are too poor to eat meat regularly and regard it as a great treat. There is not as strong a tradition of vegetarianism as there is in neighbouring India, which also has a Hindu majority.
For the time being at least, The feast-day spilling of animals' blood looks set to continue.