They came by the hundreds yesterday to a Hindu temple in rural Montgomery County to feed milk to a two-foot statue of an elephant-headed god named Ganesh.
And no matter how many skeptics tipped teaspoons of milk into his tiny trunk, Ganesh never seemed to have his fill.
"It's very difficult to explain, except to say it's a miracle," said Arvind Patel, the director of the 2,000-member temple Shri Mangal Mandir, off New Hampshire Avenue near Sandy Spring.
Miracle or not, Patel said temple members first offered the idol a drink Thursday after they received calls from relatives in India reporting that similar statues there had developed a taste for milk, a traditional offering.
In the Asian subcontinent, tens of thousands of people lined up at temples Thursday to offer the statues milk and take a look at the apparent wonder. The frenzy caused milk shortages and work stoppages, and police sent out reinforcements to control mob scenes at temples, according to the Associated Press.
India's federal minister for welfare, Sitaram Kesari, accused two right-wing groups of starting the rumors to capitalize on Hindu nationalism and win next year's general elections, the AP reported.
Nevertheless, Indians called and e-mailed relatives and friends in England, the United States, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong, asking them to present spoonfuls of milk to Lord Ganesh idols -- and crowds of the faithful and curious soon descended on their temples.
At Mangal Mandir, Hindus streamed into the modest building throughout the day. Some brought milk. Others dipped into a bowl provided by the temple. A half-dozen plastic gallon containers of milk (whole and 2 percent) sat on the floor next to the statue.
"I didn't believe it until I came here. Now I believe it," said Aruna Sharma, 38, of Silver Spring, who left to fetch her two children so they could see for themselves.
"I have a PhD in mechanical engineering, and I can't explain it," said Haashad Parikh, a temple trustee who works for a company that designs power plant simulators. "I went back to my office and said, I'm not insane, but this is really happening.' "
A Washington Post reporter held a teaspoon of milk up to the statue's trunk and observed the fluid being absorbed into the statue, which temple officials said is made of marble. There were no visible holes in the statue. But the stone could be porous, because when the reporter carelessly spilled milk on Ganesh's potbelly, it quickly disappeared as well.
The statue could be made of stone that contains tiny capillaries capable of drawing liquid from the surface, said Shawn Carlson, a physics professor at the University of San Diego who investigates reported miracles.
"I've heard of statues crying, but never ones drinking milk," Carlson said.
Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, added: "This may be a natural phenomenon that no one paid much attention to before because no one tried to feed the statue milk. But I suspect they'll know soon enough, when the milk begins to sour."
Parikh said temple elders observed no such absorption of fluids when they washed the statue in water and milk shortly after opening the temple in 1992.
Lord Ganesh is a potbellied god of wealth and power whom Hindus worship when they begin an undertaking such as a marriage or a business. Parul Majethia, 26, an Arlington resident who came to the temple bearing a tomato sauce jar filled with milk, said it is fitting that Ganesh desires milk because "milk sustains everything."
Rashmi Bhatnagar, 50, of Laurel, said she was skeptical until she saw the statue drink milk Thursday night.
"I went home and offered milk to my tiny statue of Ganesh at home, and it drank the milk, too -- and my statue is made of silver," said Bhatnagar, who returned yesterday bearing a basket of marigolds for the deity. "I couldn't sleep."
Bhatnagar said she cannot persuade her father, a retired scientist at the University of the District of Columbia, to come to the temple.
"He doesn't believe it," she said. CAPTION: Sharmistha Gupta, left, feeds milk to a statue of Lord Ganesh at a Hindu temple in Montgomery County. Mira Sheth, of the temple, assists her.