French to dynamite up huge guru statue

Reuters/September 5, 2001
By Pierre Thebault

Castellane, France -- Police prepared on Wednesday to blow up a mammoth white statue of a self-proclaimed messiah that has towered over a small village in southeastern France for more than a decade.

Security forces cleared out the hilltop headquarters of the Golden Lotus cult before dawn and explosive experts started laying charges to destroy the sculpture of sect founder Gilbert Bourdin, otherwise known as His Holiness Lord Hamsah Manarah.

Cult followers have compared the planned demolition of the 33-metre (110 ft) high statue to the recent destruction in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime of 1,500-year old colossal Buddhist statues.

French authorities say the Castellane monument was built in 1990 without planning permission and say they will fell it within the next 24 hours.

Bourdin, who also called himself the Cosmoplanetary Messiah of Synthesis, the Great Master of the Order of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra, the Master of the Selection of Souls and the Great Pontiff of the Cosmic Diamond Order, claimed to be immortal. He died of heart disease in 1998 aged 74.

He founded his "Aumism" movement in 1969 as a synthesis of all religions and created the "holy city of Mandarom" above the village of Castellane in France's picturesque Haute Provence, some 50 km (30 miles) northwest of the Riveria resort of Cannes.

Crowd Puller

While the number of cult followers has dwindled to about 400, from around 1,200 at its height, the colourful holy city has become a major tourist attraction, drawing thousands of curious visitors each year.

Looking a bit like a Disneyland theme park, Mandarom is littered with statues and temples.

The only unauthorised building on the site is the monumental statue of Bourdin, which shows the guru resplendent in white robes and a papal-style tiara. His eyes glow in the dark and a Hindu bindi on the forehead blinks at night.

Local environmental groups complained that the effigy was an eyesore and a court ruled in June that it had to be destroyed.

As police arrived at the compound early Wednesday to carry out the court order, one member of the cult scrambled to the top of the statue to protest against its destruction.

Bringing him down "required some gymnastics and a lot of attention on our part," regional prefect Bernard Lemaire said.

Explosive experts predicted that the demolition would be an equally delicate operation because the statue is surrounded by temples which have planning permission and cannot be damaged.

One official said that all the charges should be in place by the end of the day, but he did not rule out the possibility that the actual explosion would take place on Thursday.

Sect members had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights against the decision to destroy the statue, but local officials have not waited for a ruling from the court.

Bourdin's followers believe their founder will one day be resurrected from a local grave. Town officials covered over the burial site with a thick layer of reinforced concrete to prevent his supporters from digging up his body.

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