-- Outside a dumpling store in Beipu village, an enormous black swine dubbed "god pig" lolls on a mound of sand, immobile except for the occasional grunt and twitch of the snout.

Weighing a colossal 1,819 pounds, the male pig measures nearly 6 feet 7 inches from nose to tail, with its black eyes and charcoal-gray face barely discernible under the rolls of fat that distort its hairy body.

Its masters and their friends perch on stools nearby, guzzling beer and swapping gossip as they wait for the midnight sacrifice for the Yimin Festival, held to honor local militia members who were killed helping to suppress a rebellion against China's Qing authorities in the 1780s.

The cordial atmosphere of the humid summer night in northern Taiwan is shattered by the arrival of the butchers -- heavy-set, bare-chested men armed with rope and a foot-long knife.

Frightened squeals and groans fill the air as they drag the hog onto the street, tie its legs together and turn it upside down to expose a massive, bristle-covered belly.

Surrounded by scores of villagers, the lead butcher slits the pig's throat. Within minutes, the titan is dead.

"We sacrifice this god pig in honor of the Yimin martyrs who died defending our community," says Evan Peng, a restaurant owner in Beipu, home to Taiwan's Hakka ethnic group.

Peng and his friends will work until dawn to dress the carcass for the "shenzhu" contest at the nearby Yimin Temple, part of the Hakkas' most important religious festival. "Shenzhu" means "god pig" or "blessed pig."

In recent years, the practice has been marred by fierce criticism from animal rights groups who say it is cruel.

Every year about 700 pigs are force-fed to gargantuan proportions to participate in such competitions, which are held by the Hakka and other Taiwanese ethnic groups for traditional festivals that incorporate elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folk religion.

The winner is the heaviest brute, usually weighing nearly 2,000 pounds -- roughly nine times the average swine's 243 pounds.

For between 15 months and two years, god pigs are confined in tight-fitting bamboo cages to prevent them from exercising. They are force-fed through rubber hoses.

"These highly social animals are usually kept in isolation in barren conditions -- often in a pen where they cannot turn around or even stand," says the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the world's largest federation of animal welfare groups.

In the run-up to the contest, the pigs are often force-fed sand or heavy metals such as lead to add as much weight as possible, it says.

Traditional custom is to kill the pigs while they are conscious, even though animal rights advocates say Taiwan law requires pre-slaughter stunning of livestock to ease suffering.

Animal lovers have appealed to the government to ban the contests, but the Council of Agriculture said it does not oppose religious practice though it will try to persuade farmers to refrain from inhumane rearing methods.

Evan Peng fends off criticism, saying many more pigs are killed every day for food. He says a Hakka family like his would rear and sacrifice a god pig only once every 15 years.

"After caring for the pig for three years, we also have feelings for it. Each pig has its own personality. This one sometimes throws tantrums," he says, pointing to the swine.

"We shed tears when it's slaughtered. But we will sacrifice the pig to show our respect for the Yimin."

Yimin means "righteous people" and the 200 Hakka warriors who were killed in the late 18th-century rebellion are venerated as gods.

The god pigs used to be considered lucky beasts, raised in the lap of luxury with air conditioning in the summer and an unlimited supply of food such as rice, potatoes and fruit.

It was only in recent years that awareness spread about rearing practices, which Chu Wu-hung, director-general of the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan, says have nothing to do with Hakka culture.

"I am Hakka and my home is near the Yimin Temple. We used to rear pigs when we were young but we were a family farm. The pig lived in the back yard and we fed it leftovers," he says.

"Forced feeding started only 20 or 30 years ago, when industrialization ended many family farms. So people started to entrust specialty farmers" with rearing god pigs.

Chu says affluent families bought huge pigs to show off their wealth, while animal breeders were in it for the profit. A 1,300-pound pig costs about $6,300, with the price rising to $94,000 for 1,985 pounds.

Some younger Hakka agree with Chu, he said, but the older generation is stubborn. "My parents say this is a religious practice and they think I'm interfering too much," he says with a sigh.

One of Taiwan's "god pigs," force-fed to about 1,530 pounds.Thousands visit the Yimin Temple to see the sacrificed pigs. Every year, about 700 pigs are force-fed for the festival.Chang Ching-dao feeds his 1,819-pound pig before slaughter.