Believers were undeterred. Mr Verma reported that yesterday people were still visiting the temple, bearing milk. In Delhi, too, believers pushed spoonfuls of milk up to the elephant-headed Ganesh, in a shrine off Lodhi Road. In 12 hours on Thursday and early Friday, the tiny alabaster idol was reputed to have drunk more milk than a real elephant could have managed. But then the "miracle" ended as mysteriously as it had begun.
One Hindu pundit (priest) told an Indian newspaper: "Our gods were feeling very hungry and that is why they had so much milk. Now they won't have any more. In any case, one cannot force them to have milk."
The "milk miracle" was still the main topic of conversation as India resumed work yesterday. With the country trying to shake off its image of poverty and superstition, many intellectuals saw the widespread belief that gods take time off to guzzle milk as an embarrassing regression. But India is a deeply religious country. Hinduism's 30 million gods have been looming over it since at least 2,000 BC, and there are little temples in the roots of every banyan tree, and shrines in most households. For many Hindus, the gods are ever-present. They jostle humans on the streets, and miracles are commonplace.
Still, many Hindus took the "miracle" to be an omen of awesome events to come. One pundit in Delhi was quoted as saying that the reason Ganesh and the other gods were quaffing so much milk was that "they wanted to manifest themselves in the modern-day incarnation of gods." In Leeds, a temple priest, Navranda Kumar Pandya, explained: "I think it is a sign from God and it means that he still exists and we should be giving devotion to him. It says people should not give up religion."
In India, reporters rushed to the Punjab, responding to a rumour that a grotesque elephant-headed boy had been born that day. But this reincarnation of Lord Ganesh has yet to be found.
Debates between sceptics and believers raged everywhere. "This is a fantastic case of auto-suggestion," insisted Professor SK Shivpuri, an astrophysicist at Delhi University. "We all believe in God, but this is a hoax. Some people must be laughing all the way to the bank. The amount of money being offered to the deities is not amusing." The scientific theories range from surface tension and osmosis to cosmological phenomena related tonext month's solar eclipse in northern India.
If indeed this is a hoax, some officials put the blame on a Delhi holy man named Chandraswami. His sadhus (holy men) reportedly started the reports of the idols drinking milk, which then spread worldwide with the aid of modern technology, including the Internet. Chandraswami, the spiritual adviser to the Indian Prime Minister as well as the Sultan of Brunei and the actress Liz Taylor, boasted that he invoked Ganesh the evening before the idols developed a thirst.
Chandraswami faces charges of harbouring a murderer in his palatial Delhi "spiritual retreat". He has also been accused of associating with people who plotted to kill the former premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Indian press and sceptics claim he may have started the "milk miracle" to scare authorities into withdrawing their charges against him.
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