Indians by the millions rushed to see, and believed.
Rumors began spreading with astounding speed throughout India and Hindu communities from Nepal to Britain--and even Los Angeles--on Thursday that the statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk dispensed from spoons.
"God has come down to gauge us, to see how many followers He has and to serve a warning upon us that He exists," said Nagababa Ujjain Giri, chief priest at the Shiva Temple in the New Delhi neighborhood of Chanakyapuri.
In enormous throngs, Indians rushed to temples in New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and other cities to offer milk to statues of the elephant-headed Ganesha, the deity of good luck, and his parents, Shiva, the mighty god of creation and destruction, and Shiva's consort, Parvati.
Milk virtually disappeared from New Delhi shops by noon. The local government increased the city's milk supply by 25,000 gallons as prices rose as much as fourfold.
The outpouring of faith cut across caste and education. "At first, I did not believe it. But having come here and offered milk, I have no doubts left," a corporate executive, Parmesh Soti, told an Indian news agency in New Delhi. "It cannot be a hoax. Where would all that milk being offered go?"
In neighboring Nepal, thousands of people thronged Hindu temples. Even King Birendra, who is held to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu, turned out. In London, a statue of Shiva's bull, Nandi, at a temple reportedly began to quaff milk.
Scientists dismissed the idea that anything supernatural was happening. Hari Om Updhaya of the National Physical Laboratory toured a number of New Delhi temples and found that the pious were failing to notice the thin white film of milk trickling down the statues, which often are carved from white stone themselves or wreathed in flowers.
The craze subsided on Friday as quickly as it had erupted. At Giri's temple in Chanakyapuri, thousands of people had dispensed 50 gallons of milk on Thursday to small white marble statues; by 8:30 a.m. Friday, another 50 people had come, but the numbers dwindled rapidly.
Religion and politics are often inextricably tangled in India, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist group, seized upon the happenings as a miracle. Meanwhile, Welfare Minister Sitaram Kesri from the ruling Congress (I) Party accused two right-wing Hindu groups of kindling the rumor to "produce a surge of religious fervor" that could be exploited in the next elections.
The Indian Rationalist Assn., formed in 1949 to combat superstition, came up with its own explanation. After an investigation by its 18 state committees, it concluded Friday that the unnatural wonder had been the doing of a controversial and well-connected guru, Chandraswami, who is now being investigated by Indian police.
Between 2 and 4 a.m. Thursday, said Sanal Edamaruku, secretary general of the rationalist association, telephone calls had been made to main temples around the country to organize what would appear to be a spontaneous and widespread act of God.
It reached as far as the San Fernando Valley. Hundreds of worshipers, lured by word of mouth, phone calls from India and reports on CNN, flocked to the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Chatsworth on Thursday to feed milk to a small stone statue of Ganesha. Unlike in India, however, the phenomenon continued Friday in Chatsworth, and hundreds more visited the temple.
According to Edamaruku, "It was a well-connected network. Where there were no communications, there was no miracle.
"What [Chandraswami] is trying to do is make believe that, if he is interrogated or questioned, miracles will happen," he said.
On Sept. 15, the guru was arrested for alleged connections to organized crime. He has been linked by an arrested gangster to the chief suspect in a series of bombings that rocked Bombay in March, 1993.
"I had invoked Lord Ganesha yesterday," Chandraswami told reporters after stories of the drinking statues began sweeping India. "This is only the beginning of godly miracles."
Correspondent Nicholas Riccardi in Chatsworth contributed to this report.