Religious tension rises in holy city after bomb blasts

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Surender Agarwal had just got married when the Varanasi bombs went off. He and his wife were coming to the end of their ceremony in the courtyard of one of the city's Hindu temples when a bomb exploded 10 feet away. The priest who was officiating was killed, so were two family members. Now Mr Agarwal and his new wife, Manju, are lying side by side in hospital beds.

The bride, in her 20s, has bad shrapnel injuries in her legs and is spending her honeymoon in agony.

"Whoever did this is a traitor," says Mr Agarwal. The newlyweds are a long way from home. Mrs Agarwal is a Nepali, from Kathmandu; she met her husband on a visit to his home city of Bombay. They agreed to marry in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi on the recommendation of a priest, an old family friend, who said it would bring blessings. But he is now dead, killed in the blast.

Their story is typical of a city that is close to the heart of every Hindu.

At least 20 people are believed to have been killed in bombings at a temple and a railway station on Tuesday night. But it is being seen as an attack on all Hindus in the way that 9/11 in New York was seen as an attack on all Americans.

Down at the ghats, the banks of the holy river Ganges, where pilgrims come to immerse themselves in its waters and the dead are cremated over pyres of sandalwood, there is a sense of shock. The Western backpackers are still here but it is uncomfortably quiet. Usually, this is a place where a foreigner cannot move 10 paces without being offered a neck massage and a boat ride along the river. But the locals seemed to have lost heart.

Dinesh Chaubey ran away from his village as a child to work for the poor in Varanasi. Everybody knows him on the ghats. But yesterday, he was grieving.

"When I heard about the bomb, I rushed to the temple to help," he says. "But when I got there I saw bodies that were just pieces of meat. They had no arms or legs, their heads were lying on the other side of the courtyard. I picked up one young girl and carried her out. She had lost her legs, she was so far gone she couldn't feel any pain, and she looked right into my eyes. Today, I keep seeing her in my arms again, and I am in pain."

People come to Varanasi from all over the world because it is seen as a spiritual city. Mirabai Nicholson-McKellan, an Australian, has felt compelled to return to Varanasi every year since her first visit. Elderly Hindus come here to live out their last days, because it is believed to be auspicious to die here.

But Varanasi has become a city of conflict. "The Muslims have done this. Always the Muslims kill Hindus," said Ashok Patel, one of an angry crowd at the Shankar Mochan temple that was hit in the bombings. "It's time we Hindus did the same to them."

The Hindus in Varanasi blame Islamic militants for the bombings. In a city with a mixed Hindu and Muslim population and a history of violent clashes, it is a dangerous atmosphere.

"I'm scared something may happen," said Naseem Ahmed, a Muslim. "Some bad people have done this to create trouble between Hindus and Muslims."

Last week, four people were killed when Muslims protesting against a visit by President George Bush clashed with Hindus in the state capital, Lucknow. A Muslim state minister offered £6.6m to anyone who beheaded the Danish cartoonist who drew the Prophet Mohamed. Hindu extremists responded by offering the same sum for the head of M F Hussain, a Muslim painter, after he painted Hindu goddesses as nudes.

Varanasi is rife with rumour. Everyone here belives that more people died in the bombs, but the government is covering up the numbers to prevent clashes. They believe an explosion six months ago on the ghats, in which several people died, was not caused by a faulty gas cylinder, as the police said, but by a bomb.

Police killed two alleged Islamic militants from the group Lashkar-e-Toiba in Delhi and a third in a raid in Lucknow yesterday. Although police did not link the raids to the bombings, everyone here believes they were connected.

"It's time for us Hindus to ... attack our enemies," said Kaushan Kishor Choudhry, who was injured in the temple blast. "We should attack Pakistan."

Lashkar-e-Toiba was once connected with Pakistan's intelligence service, but the Pakistani establishment says those links have been severed. However, many people here insist Pakistan was involved.

They say that the Pakistan government was not happy after President Bush offered India a strategic alliance. The US is increasingly talking of India not in the same breath as Pakistan, but as a counterweight to China.

But it seems that many here are not ready to give up old ways of thinking.