It's noon and like all Shiv temples in the city, Mukteshwara Temple is teeming with devotees queuing up to offer milk to the deity in the holy month of 'sawan'.
A small distance away, an equally eager line — this one of street children — is neatly forming under the sweltering sun.
Among them is 10-year-old Sudha waiting in anticipation for a 'treat', near a small outlet emerging from the temple.
In no time, a trickle of pinkish liquid materialises and Sudha and her friends immediately collect it in their small pots and gulp it down in an instant. It is the same milk, which the devotees had offered to the Shivling moments ago.
Street children wait to collect milk outside Mukteshwar Temple. (Sushil Rai/HT Photo)
What Sudha doesn't know is that the milk, which she is consuming to attain nutrition, can make her extremely sick.
HT collected samples from different Shiva temples in the city and sent them to a co-operative dairy to check for adulteration. The results were shocking.
The samples were found to have milk content, measured through corrected lactometer reading, ranging from just 10% to 50%. And that is not the only thing wrong with it.
"The milk offered to Lord Shiva invariably gets mixed with vermillion, sandal paste, dhatura, bhang and other puja materials -- some of these are toxic. Vermillion, for example, is mercuric oxide — a toxic substance. Same goes for dhatura. Bhang is a known intoxicant. The children are at grave risk, indeed," said Dr RP Singh of Gorakhnath area.
Often the passage through which the milk travels from the lingam inside the sanctum sanctorum to the outlet is crusted with algae and bacteria.
However, there is none — not even social organisations or temple authorities - to stop them from drinking this poisonous milk.
Driven by acute poverty – which does not give them the luxury of having milk at home – as well as ignorance, these children gather every morning to partake the tasty offering.
To make the most of the heavy sawan footfall, rows of vendors selling milk and other offerings gather outside the temples.
Most of this milk is adulterated and sold at ridiculously high prices.
Pandit Ravindra Tripathi of the Mahadeo Jharkhandi temple, felt that the devotees could give the milk directly to the children.
"The lord is satisfied with a 'lota'-full of water and the usual 'bel-patra'. In fact, the devotees would do well to offer pure milk to these poor children directly. Baba would be much happier," he said.