KHATMANDU: A half-tonne bull enters the ring, snorting and rearing, before running at full pelt towards a section of spectators, drawing screams of fear and delight from the frenzied crowd.
It could be a scene from any Spanish arena but this is bullfighting Nepal-style, with thousands trekking deep into the Himalayan foothills to watch a centuries-old spectacle whose popularity is growing even as its appeal wanes in Europe.
Every year thousands of Nepalis come to see the animals fight at a festival marking Maghe Sankranti, the first day of the tenth month in the nation's calendar when villagers celebrate an end to winter and usher in warmer weather.
Unlike its European cousin, there are no matadors -- the beasts take on each other -- and buffalo are preferred to traditional bulls, which are sacred in the Hindu-majority country.
"Bull fights have been happening all around here for a long time. My grandfather used to say they have been going on for more than 200 years," said Janak Raj Dhungana, who organises the fiesta in the village of Taruka, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of the capital Kathmandu.
"The fights used to happen in different places around Nuwakot district. But six years ago we brought them all together for one big fight here."
Seven pairs of bulls did battle in a ring overlooking the spectacular terraced hillsides, fertile valleys and terracotta tiled roofs of Nuwakot in front of a crowd of 5,000 perched on grass banks and muddy slopes on Sunday.
This was not as lucrative as the Spanish circuit, with winning owners receiving prize money of 1,000 rupees ($12) from the village authorities and the losers getting half that.
The buffalo are selected when they are calves and trained only to fight at the annual fiesta, being spared the ploughing duties their less tenacious siblings are reared for.
An important difference between European and Nepali bullfighting is the absence of bloodshed in the Himalayan version -- bouts only go on until one animal tires and gives up.
The bulls -- altogether more sedate creatures than the beasts of the Spanish corridas -- square up, push and occasionally butt heads but none are killed.
The closest the spectators came to seeing blood at this year's festival was when a small section of the crowd fell through a safety barrier as one perky bull escaped its handler and headed into the spectators.
Serious injuries to the animals are rare as owners and handlers step in with bamboo prods to separate sparring bulls if one looks hurt.
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.
"We teach the animals how to fight starting from when they are small," said Toya Prasad Dhakal, 48, from Taruka, who has been training bulls for 19 years.
"I'm not at all worried about them getting injured. In all the time I've been doing this I've never seen an animal hurt."
It is said that Nepali bullfighting is centuries old, though it was only introduced in Taruka in 1900, by Jai Prithvi Bahadur Singh, a monarch of the ancient Bajhang kingdom in what is now western Nepal.
The bullfight has a much longer history in Spain, going back to the 16th century, but interest is falling. In a 2008 survey, only 23 percent of Catalans questioned said they were interested in the tradition.
Meanwhile its smaller-scale cousin in Nepal goes from strength to strength.
"The crowds are always in their thousands," said Kathmandu-based student Saurav Pradhananga, who was in the crowd on Sunday. "You can get up to 15,000 coming to see the fights. They are really popular."