Early on Sunday September 6, a wooden chariot at the Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Hindu temple in India’s southern Andhra Pradesh state was engulfed in flames. Inhabitants filmed the fire, which was quickly picked up by local news and shared across social media. The cause of the fire has not been determined, but the chariot’s burning quickly became political leverage with locals and political parties suggesting it was an intentional attack on a Hindu site.

The Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple in Antarvedi, where the Godavari river meets the Bay of Bengal, is a sacred site for Hindus. Sometime between midnight and 3am on September 6, a chariot designed to carry deities during an annual celebration caught fire. The chariot, located just outside the central grounds of the temple, burned for about 30 minutes until only its charred skeleton remained. Videos of the fire quickly spread around social media, with many locals and devotees calling for an investigation.
A video of the chariot at Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple burning in the early hours of September 6. In this Twitter thread, the author claims that the recent fire is one of several smiliar incidents at Hindu sites.


Somu Veerraju, head of the Andhra Pradesh branch of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claimed that Hindu temples are under attack in the state. "There have been several attacks on Hindu temples in many parts of the state. Similar incidents have taken place in Bitragunta and Pithapuram,” Veerraju told Business World India.

The Hindu nationalist BJP is in power at the national level under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but in opposition in Andhra Pradesh. Veerraju accused the state’s chief minister, Yeduguri Sandinti Jaganmohan Reddy, a Christian, and his Youth, Labour and Farmers Congress Party (YSRCP) of pushing “anti-Hindu” policies. "The YSRCP is funding the construction of churches.  The government is trying to take control of temples' lands through government orders,” he said. Political analysts say Andhra Pradesh - with a population that is 91% Hindu, 7% Muslim and 1.4% Christian - has seen increasing religious polarisation since Reddy became chief minister in May 2019. 

In this Tweet, shared on September 8, P. Muralidhar Rao, National General Secretary, demands a government investigation to 'look into any possible foul play in this incident and bring out the truth'.

On September 10, Reddy announced that there will be a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the incident.

'Accusing Christians, they attacked a church near the temple with stones'

Trimurthulu Seekoti is an investigative journalist who specialises in crime and health in Andhra Pradesh. He spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about the chariot fire.
 
The 40ft (12m) tall chariot completely burned in the shed because it was made of teak wood and it was covered with the dry palm leaves. The temple administration officials suspect it could be from a short-circuit. But many local devotees suspect that it was intentional. They are mainly accusing Christians and they attacked a church near the temple with stones.

It's a challenging issue for the local police. They have been searching for the accused’s identification by [matching] mobile phone tower location and phone calls. One person has been arrested by the police who has a psychological disorder and two more were also taken into custody.

The temple is famous in south India. Thousands of devotees have visited to perform Puja [a morning Hindu worship ritual where devotees pray to deities or honour guests]. Every year the chariot was utilised during Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy’s Kalyanotsavam [Kalyanotsavam carnival is part of an annual religious celebration held in February]. 

'Activists entered the temple forcefully. Clashes resulted between the police and a few of the devotees'

In response to the fire, many locals, members of the opposition parties and right-wing organisations assembled on September 8, calling for a thorough investigation of the chariot’s burning, Seekoti told the FRANCE 24 Observers 24.
In this video, posted on Twitter on Sep. 8, pro-Hindu demonstrators clash with security forces. The caption claims the fire was an anti-Hindu attack.  
Members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) [a right-wing Hindu religious organisation] and leaders of Jana Sena [a regional political party in Andhra Pradesh that supports BJP] have been protesting. They have been accusing the endowments minister [a government entity that oversees the temple and pilgrimage] and the temple's administrators of negligence. They want an inquiry into chariot burning. 

Jana Sena’s leader alleged that the temple's surveillance cameras have not functioned in months. He said the temple’s executive officer did not take care of the chariot. 
On September 8, hundreds of Hindu organisers and activists arrived to protest. The superintendent of police Nayeem Asmi directed the police to stop the activists from entering the temple. But their attempts failed, and the activists entered the temple forcefully. Clashes and arguments resulted between the police and a few of the devotees.

The ruling party leaders [from Chief Minister Reddy’s cabinet] said that the chariot has insurance, so it would be replaced. But the local devotees have argued that it had a 60-year history and sentimental value.

This video, shared on September 8 shows protestors pushing against barriers set up by local authorities.

Nandi Prasad, a devotee who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team agreed.  
The chariot that was burnt in Antarvedi was manufactured with pure teak wood and has extraordinary architecture in it. This can't be replaced with a new one. It had the sentiment of a religion and people.

Venugopala Krishna, an official in the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, called for people to stop using the fire as a political tool. Krishna is a member of Reddy's ruling party.

“This is not time to play with the religious sentiment of people. The government is probing into the fire from all angles,” he told the Hindu

While the investigation continues, the Endowment Department has already promised to build a new chariot and devoted ₹840,000 [€9,700] to the reconstruction.

This article was written by Sophie Stuber.