By Peter Foster in New Delhi, The Telegraph UK , 01/02/2007
The Indian film star Aishwarya Rai has been accused of promoting a tradition associated with the caste system and "untouchability" following reports that she had "married a tree" in an ancient Hindu ceremony.
Miss Rai, a former Miss World who is engaged to the Bollywood heart-throb Abhishek Bachchan, is said to have undergone the ritual to overcome astrological differences with her fiancé.
Lawyers representing human rights groups have now filed a civil lawsuit demanding that Miss Rai, 33, and her family offer a public apology for entering into "false marriages".
Over the last six months Miss Rai and Mr Bachchan, 30, have been spotted entering temples in the holy cities of Varanasi and Ayodhya to perform "puja" or prayer ceremonies. Astrologers have said that Miss Rai's astrological chart is "manglik", or Mars-bearing, which, according to Hindu tradition, can have negative consequences for their impending marriage.
Traditionally, "manglik" women are required to go through a ceremony marrying them to a peepal tree, a banana tree or a silver or golden idol of the Hindu god Vishnu in a ceremony known as "kumbh vivah".
According to the litigation, filed in Patna, eastern India, such practices are "derogatory" to women and in violation of Article 17 of the Indian constitution which prohibits untouchability.
Caste discrimination has been illegal in India for many decades. However, the power of caste still persists in ordering society in many parts of rural India.
Untouchables, the lowest caste, are still forbidden to share wells in some villages.
Miss Rai, who was once described as the world's most beautiful woman by the actress Julia Roberts, also featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2003 as one of the most powerful women in Asia.
The Bachchan family has refused to comment on the couple's alleged astrological incompatibility or what, precisely, they might be doing to solve the problem.