(A masked devotee takes part in a parade commemorating the Neku Jatra-Mataya festival, the festival of lights, in Lalitpur August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar)

Hundreds of young boys, their faces smeared with mascara and painted as cows, trot barefoot along the streets of Nepal’s capital in the Gai Jatra festival, the procession of cows.

The annual event, usually in August or September, is one of the Himalayan nation’s most popular festivals. Families who have lost a relative during the past year lead a cow in the procession, or dress a boy as the animal, to make sure their lost loved one has a place in heaven.

“We believe in this, and it is our culture,” said Pritan Bariya, a 28-year-old graphic designer who lost his sister two months ago. “It will lead my sister to the doors of heaven”.

In Hinduism the cow is considered sacred. Many Nepalese use the animal’s urine and dung for religious purposes and the slaughter of cows is banned in country.