Swaziland's annual 'Reed Dance' is a traditional show of virginity by thousands of maidens. This year bare-breasted girls,
Tens of thousands of virgin maidens danced on Monday for Swaziland's King Mswati III in a traditional reed dance at Ludzidzini palace outside the capital Mbabane.
The final day of the annual dance attracted a record 70,000 girls, some of them as young as six years of age.
The girls - dressed in colourful Swazi regalia - came from all corners of the mountain kingdom in a display of pride in their culture and virtue.
The ceremony has a more serious mission - to draw attention to AIDS and encourage abstinence among young women, in a small southern African nation ravaged by AIDS and poverty.
Swaziland has one of the highest AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with almost 40 per cent of adults affected, according to UN data.
"As a young Swazi woman, it is very important for me to here. I have been attending the dance since I was 14 years of age," university student Landile Hlongwa, 24, told AFP.
King Mswati has 13 wives, and he could pick another from among the dancers.
"Being chosen by the king would be a bonus for me. I would like occupy one of the royal palaces one day," Hlongwa said shyly.
In 2005 the monarch triggered an outcry when he selected a 17-year-old to be his 13th wife just days after he ended an official ban on sex for girls younger than 18.
The bare-breasted maidens - led by the king's own daughters - sang and chanted traditional songs before thousands of spectators and tourists who gathered at a sports field outside the palace.
Groups of girls, some clad in sarongs bearing the face of Africa's last absolute monarch, took turns in dancing to traditional rhythms while some of the queens and other royals joined in.
"This year's record attendance is an indication that our children have more understanding of what our culture is about," said event co-ordinator Irene Ngwane.
This year's ceremony precedes a controversial "40-40" celebration to mark the impoverished kingdom's 40 years of independence from Britain as well as the king's birthday.
That much-anticipated event has touched off unprecedented demonstrations against international shopping trips by the royal family and the purchase of luxury cars at a time when most Swazis live in poverty.
The lavish celebration takes place Saturday.