Unholy Row Over 'Luxury' Tents at Hindu Festival

Holy men say relatively upscale accommodations for the likes of Madonna and Sharon Stone conflict with Kumbh Mehla's intent.

ALLAHABAD, India, Jan. 11 (AFP) -- An unholy row broke out Thursday at the world's largest religious fair in northern India after Hindu priests demanded the closure of luxury tents for celebrities and well-heeled visitors.

Organisers of the Maha Kumbh Mela (Great Kumbh Fair) near the town of Allahabad had said Wednesday they would close down the 74 Swiss cottage-style tents, built over five acres by the Indian arm of British-based tour operator Cox and Kings.

The temporary resort, where charges for a tent start at 23,000 Indian rupees -- the equivalent of $4 -- for two nights, is fully booked for the duration of the 42-day pilgrimage which began Tuesday.

"Our lawyers are meeting with the Kumbh commissioners now, said Bhaskar Bhattacharya, a consultant who set up the Cox and Kings camp.

The controversy erupted after reports that the camp was serving alcohol and non-vegetarian fare, taboo at Hindu pilgrimages.

Bhattacharya dismissed the charges as unfounded rumour.

"We made it clear months ago that only vegetarian food would be served and alcohol banned," he said, adding that the Kumbh administrators and sadhu leaders had visited the camp several times and raised no objections.

The Kumbh Mela, where Hindus bathe in the Ganges to absolve their sins, is expected to draw 70 million pilgrims, as well as a host of celbrities like the self-styled Queen of Pop Madonna, veteran rocker Sir Paul McCartney and singer Courtney Love.

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Expected visitors from Hollywood include Pierce Brosnan, Demi Moore, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone. Tourism sources had said they expected them to stay at the Cox and Kings camp.

Sadakant, who like many Indians uses just one name, a local official overseeing the arrangements for what has been touted as the biggest gathering of humanity in recorded history, said the feelings of the "sadhus," or Hindu holy men, could not be bypassed.

"Sadhus are holy men whose sentiments cannot be ignored. The five star accommodation went against the true Kumbh spirit, the sages felt, and their thoughts had to be respected."

The Akhada Parishad, or Council of (Hindu) Sages at the Kumbh fair had raised the issue with the civic organisers.

"There is a provision that states that if any activity goes against the basic character of this religious congregation, it should be at once done away with," said the Kumbh Mela's main administrator, Jeevesh Nandan.

Besides opposition from the sadhus, a public interest case has also been filed in the Allahabad High Court against the tour operator on the same grounds.

Apart from Cox and Kings, a local businessman named Anil Agarwal also has been asked to wind up his makeshift luxury tents named Kumbh Village for similar reasons.

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