Almost six months after a decades-old chariot at the Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple at Antarvedi in Andhra Pradesh's East Godavari district was gutted in a fire, its government-commissioned replacement and its process has evoked mixed reactions among local devotees.
Following the loss, the state government immediately took up the task of building a new chariot at a cost of Rs 1 crore, equipping it with modern features such as hydraulic brakes.
"The new chariot's design is really good, compared to the old one. This is more agile and better equipped," devotee Malladi Veera Venkata Satyanarayana (23), who works at a sweet shop in Malkipuram village, told IANS.
Satyanarayana, who checked out the new chariot, noted its features, such as its ability to turn in narrow lanes.
"The chariot can be elevated by 3 feet. If a wall or some object blocks the chariot, it can be elevated to take sharp turns. I think that the new one is a little taller than the older chariot," he observed.
However, in a bittersweet mood, he highlighted that old is gold as the chariot destroyed in the fire was built by the temple's founder Kopanati Krishnama Varma and had its own importance.
"The old chariot was made of pure teak wood which is also the case with the new chariot, but I still feel that the old dark-coloured one was better," he said.
Tharadi Siva, a 29-year-old electrician, is glad that the 'radham' (chariot) has been arranged in time for the presiding deity's "kalyanostavam" (celestial wedding).
"The new chariot is good with all the features. Our feeling is that the government has arranged the new chariot in time for the 'kalyanostavam' without any delay," he said.
Admitting to pain at losing the old chariot, he lamented that it cannot be brought back but also said that the new one could be understood as the deity's wish for a new divine vehicle.
"Within our hearts, we are content that the deity wishes to go in procession in the new chariot. We are lowly human beings, the Lord knows what he wants, beyond that we cannot do much," he observed.
During the auspicious hours (muhurtam) on Monday night, Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy's idol was taken out for the 'kalyanostavam', when the devotees stay awake the whole night and go for a holy dip in the Bay of Bengal before visiting the deity again.
As per tradition, in the following day's afternoon, the deity is taken in procession in the chariot till the Gurralakka Temple, believed to be the temple of the deity's elder sister.
However, all devotees are not happy at the current state of affairs.
Representatives of the Agnikula Kshatriya, the community closely associated with the temple and its founding, allege that "some forces are working overtime" to separate them from the temple's affairs.
"We do not have many hopes on the new chariot as the old chariot built by Kopanati Krishnama Varma got burnt and we are being kept away from the temple's affairs by the government," said Chilakalapudi Ravi Kiran, president of Konaseema Agnikula Kshatriya union of the community.
Kiran said Varma, a respected man from the community, built the temple as well as the old chariot but now community members from the current generation are being sidelined.
He stressed that people who built the temple, its chariot, donated ornaments to the deity and contributed to maintenance and rituals are the rightful people to manage the temple's affairs.
Kiran said Varma's family from Vodalarevu donated 1,800 acres of land and priceless jewels to the temple but his descendants are being ignored.
"Now this family is not visible to the government or the Endowments Minister. Government is acting in a way to erase the roots of this temple which bear the insignia of Varma and the Agnikula Kshatriya community," he alleged.
He accused the government of not involving his community members in efforts to build the new chariot initially, forcing them to fight for their rightful role.
"They did not consult us or the temple founder's family members in the tendering but gave away the contract to build the chariot to Brahmaji, from Odisha and based in Hyderabad, despite having many carpenters within our community," Kiran said.
Enraged by these developments, he said representatives of the community reached out to the ruling YSRCP's Rajya Sabha member Mopidevi Venkataramana, a person from the same community, to involve them in the chariot rebuilding, which resulted in a small role.
"We are not completely satisfied. When the founder family belongs to Kopanati Krishnama Varma, from where did Raja Kalidindi Kumara Satyanarayana Simha Gajapati Raja Bahadur come from? Is he born to the former or his heir? Will they belittle us because our community members do not have assets and material wealth," Kiran asked.
Raja Bahadur happens to come from the local Kshatriya community which is more affluent and influential than the Agnikula Kshatriya community.
"None of the plaques at the temple identify anybody other than Krishnama Varma, then from where did Raja Bahadur come from to be the representative of the founder family? All of the plaques testify Krishnama Varma built the temple. Why is the government not allowing the heirs of the temple builders to represent the temple?" he demanded.
According to Kiran, Kopanati Krishnama Varma's great grandson Kopanati Srinivasa Rao should represent the founder family but not Kalidindi Kumara Rama Goapala Raja, son of Raja Bahadur and current temple chairman, who is wrongfully representing the family.
He questioned if the government is getting swayed by the cash-rich Kshatriya community, alleging if they were coming handy during the polls.
"Why is the government only using us as a vote bank?" he said.
On Monday, as a tribute to the temple founder, his community members took out a motorcycle rally and laid gigantic garlands before the deity as well as Krishnama Varma's portrait.
Though his community members are not affluent, Kiran noted that they all could have chipped in to raise the Rs 1 crore needed for the chariot but they did not get the opportunity.