Tue, Sep 06, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Devotees offer bootleg sacrifices

In the Indian state of Gujarat, hundreds buy contraband liquor every week as offerings to the Hindu deity Lord Bhairavnath

AFP , AHMEDABAD, INDIA

Mahesh Patel prayed his business would rebound. It did. So he offered a drink to a temple in India's western Gujarat state in thanks.

For Patel and thousands like him in Gujarat, getting liquor is difficult. It is the only one of India's 28 states that bans liquor sales and manufacture.

But at a temple that honors the Hindu deity Lord Bhairavnath in the Ahmedabad suburb of Maninagar, the prohibition laws don't seem to matter.

The shrine, tucked away down a narrow lane, gets hundreds of liquor bottles weekly from devotees like Patel who pray to Bhairavnath, the god of terror, for a blessing.

The temple, which only accepts Indian knockoffs of international liquor brands, has survived raids by the 1,500-member state prohibition department as local residents protect its existence zealously from anybody trying to disrupt the religious proceedings.

"These laws are framed by humans and they don't apply in the court of the Lord. Lord Bhairavnath is appeased only by offering liquor," Shivnath, the head-priest of the temple says.

Patel agrees that offering liquor in return for a blessing was worth the risk of being arrested for buying a bootleg bottle of booze in the state.

"I was facing financial losses in my business for a long time," Patel said.

"One of my friends guided me to this temple. I had offered puja (prayer) here and promised to make a liquor offering if my business recovers. Now that it has, here I am."

Shivnath says the offerings are done in a highly ritualized manner. They take place every Sunday, and long lines of devotees clutching cloth or plastic bags in a suspicious manner form outside the temple.

The bottles, which must be sealed to prove the devotee has not had a drink beforehand, are taken from the

devotees by temple staff and Shivnath pours a peg or two on a statue of the deity.

The liquor accumulates in a shallow rock bowl underneath the statue while the remainder in the bottle is stored inside the temple. Shivnath declined to say what happens to all the liquor

offered.

The devotee, who must bathe before the offering, gets a half coconut as prasad (blessing), or if really insistent, the priest will also give a spoon-full of liquor as well.

"Those who are childless come here seeking an heir, while spirited lovers come here to seek a solution to their romantic problems, the diseased pray before Bhairavnath Dada (father) to get cured," says Shivnath, who is the only one with the right to make the liquor offering to the Lord.

"No one returns empty-handed from here."

Gujarat's tourism industry has been fighting the ban on liquor sales, arguing that the state, ruled by Hindu-nationalist Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is losing tax money as bootleggers smuggle booze from neighboring states.

But Modi has been adamant in squashing all proposals for abolishing or even partially lifting prohibition in Gujarat, a state known as the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.

The temple is located in the state assembly district Modi represents.

Recently the prohibition department sent a team to the temple to investigate the liquor offerings, but could not find any booze.

But the smell of liquor hangs in the air outside the temple and some residents say that it's possible that the prohibition officers just aren't willing to run the risk of divine retribution.

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