Amid wreckage, prayer goes on


VARANASI, India --Their hushed voices were drowned out by the howls of demonstrators. Just a stone's throw away lay the gory wreckage of Tuesday's temple blast.

But inside a small square chamber on the compound of the Sankat Mochan temple yesterday afternoon, four men sat facing their monkey god and carrying out a job they had been paid to do: chanting the name of a Hindu god as a prayer for a stranger who was sick.

"Om Sri Ram, jai Ram, jai jai Ram," the men muttered through the din and sensation. An interruption of the incantation could not be allowed.

Modern terror more than interrupted the rhythm of this 400-year-old institution, as it did, in smaller ways, the rhythm of daily life in this 2,500-year-old city. A pair of homemade bombs tore through the Sankat Mochan temple and the nearby city railway station Tuesday evening, killing at least 14 and injuring more than 100.

Law enforcement authorities said yesterday that explosives had been stuffed inside pressure cookers and left inside inconspicuous bags at both sites. The police found a similar unexploded device at a busy city market. The bomb at the train station left a wide, shallow crater at the terminal; shrapnel pockmarked the ceiling.

The other bomb was set off at dusk in the courtyard of the Sankat Mochan temple, dedicated to the Hindu monkey deity, Hanuman, as thousands of worshipers gathered for the evening oil-lamp prayers. Tuesday is the most auspicious day at the Hanuman temple, and dozens of couples had come to Sankat Mochan to be blessed in marriage.

The blast forced all services to be suspended for four hours. "For us what could be a more shattering experience?" the temple's head priest and administrator, Veer Bhadra Mishra, 68, wondered aloud yesterday. Hindus believe that the temple compound, surrounded by woods, is Hanuman's home.

Fears of a Hindu-Muslim clash did not come to pass, despite protest marches called by Hindu radicals and their politician allies. Varanasi, also known as Benares, was free of violence yesterday.

But the city was also missing its usual chaotic, vibrant and intense character. With a strike called by a number of Hindu nationalist outfits, schools and businesses across the city were closed. Boatmen at the Ganges River, a daily draw for pilgrims and tourists, complained that business had dropped off. Varanasi's narrow, normally impassable streets could be easily navigated.

Several Muslim shopkeepers said they shuttered their businesses as a gesture of condolence for the families of the dead, and they sat on the steps of their shops chewing betel leaves, chatting, watching the day pass. Riot police stood at street corners.

Politicians seized upon the Varanasi blasts, coming as they did to India's most-populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where elections are expected to be held this year.

Yesterday, L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, accused the government, led by the Congress Party, of not being tough enough on terrorists and announced a procession to denounce the blasts.

Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, wasted no time in rushing to the city to commiserate with victims and their families, and review the damage. With Congress eager to reclaim Uttar Pradesh from a local rival political party, Gandhi pressed the state and federal governments to capture the culprits and mete out "very strict punishment." The Congress Party's main rival, Uttar Pradesh's chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, called for unity.

State officials announced that the police in the town of Lucknow, also in Uttar Pradesh, had shot and killed a man suspected of being a militant and of having links to Kashmir insurgents. They offered no concrete evidence linking the dead suspect to the Varanasi bombing. "We are collecting evidence," said Yashpal Singh, the state police chief. "We do not have any solid proof to move in a particular direction."

At the normally bustling commercial strip called Bengali Tola, the shopkeepers, most of them Muslims, had closed their shops and headed home Tuesday night as soon as the news of the blasts came. By the end of the night, they said, they had resolved to take the day off. There was no telling, they said, what violence could flare up.

"We want that you should write we also regret this very deeply, we also feel the sorrow," said Muhammad Yusha, 45, who makes his living as a polisher of Varanasi's famous silk saris.

Never before, said sari shop owner Mumtaz Ahmed, 38, had he seen virtually every Muslim-owned shop closed for the day.

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