Temple PRASAD leaves a bitter aftertaste

The Simhachalam Temple’s grand expansion has cast a shadow over the local hamlet that houses 70 families of the Konda Dora tribe. Temple officials embarked on a relocation mission in 2003 under the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive, shifting 60% residents out of the hamlet. Those who put their foot down and stayed back continue to fight for basic amenities, finds V. Kamalakara Rao

March 15, 2024 08:47 am | Updated 08:48 am IST

A group of residents of ST Colony on Simhachalam Hills in Visakhapatnam engaged in conversation; and the dilapidated colony standing in stark contrast to the grand Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple, located barely 100 metres away.

A group of residents of ST Colony on Simhachalam Hills in Visakhapatnam engaged in conversation; and the dilapidated colony standing in stark contrast to the grand Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple, located barely 100 metres away. | Photo Credit: K. R. Deepak

On a chilly January afternoon, thick plumes of smoke billowing from a secluded spot on the Simhachalam hills in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, caught the attention of onlookers. Initially thought to be routine burning of firewood by the local tribal population during winter, the source of the smoke later turned out to be the cremation ceremony of a 55-year-old tribal woman, Chodipilli Varalamma.

Varalamma, who had fallen ill in the first week of January this year, succumbed while undergoing treatment at a nearby hospital a few days later. Overcome with sorrow, her family, including her son Bhairava, faced a daunting task in ensuring a dignified farewell. Unable to enter the usual burial ground, the grieving family ultimately laid Varalamma to rest in the middle of a narrow road leading to the common graveyard.

The management of Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple, popularly known as the Simhachalam Temple, has allegedly acquired a portion of the burial ground as part of its expansion project. Temple authorities have sealed off the area, denying tribals access to the cremation ground.

The dilapidated colony standing in stark contrast to the grand Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple, located barely 100 metres away.

The dilapidated colony standing in stark contrast to the grand Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple, located barely 100 metres away. | Photo Credit: K.R Deepak

The stark contrast

Dedicated to Lord Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, depicted as half-man, half-lion, this temple holds great religious importance and is among the oldest in the country.

According to the tribals, the temple management has not only tried to grab the burial ground but also their hamlet, known locally as ST Colony, or Scheduled Tribe Colony, named after their legal status given by India’s Constitution. This settlement, home to about 250 people from 70 families of the Konda Dora tribe, has existed for centuries, they say.

Situated approximately 100 metres from the main entrance of the temple, the hamlet falls within the jurisdiction of Simhachalam village in Adavivaram gram panchayat of Visakhapatnam Rural mandal. It is topographically part of Visakhapatnam city, which Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy plans to make the State’s executive capital. However, despite the hamlet’s vast history and importance, the tribal residents find themselves cramped out, their tranquillity disturbed.

Temple officials state that attempts to relocate the tribals began in 2003 under the Centre-sponsored scheme, PRASAD (Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive), aimed at temple development. As part of the initiative, 193 families in the hamlet were identified for relocation to the Gosala area at the bottom of the hill. Although 60% of them were moved, the remaining continue to hold onto their roots but at a price — they are struggling with civic and other issues.

Inhabitants of ST Colony on Simhachalam Hills  under Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation.

Inhabitants of ST Colony on Simhachalam Hills under Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation. | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

They express a profound sense of isolation, lacking essential amenities like electricity, drainage systems, and government services. During temple events, their area is completely sealed with sidewalls in a bid to conceal them and their challenging living conditions from visitors, especially VVIPs, they say.

“The temple is literally next door. We can hear and see every activity in the temple like Suprabhatam, the first ritual to wake up the Lord. The temple is decorated with flowers for every occasion and vibrantly illuminated. But our hamlet which is next to the temple is always in the dark. We did not want to leave during the relocation drive due to our love for the Lord and attachment to our place, but we didn’t expect such bitter circumstances,” says J. Devudamma, a tribal resident of Simhachalam.

The hamlet is perennially littered with garbage and silt, resulting in malodorous streets. In a nutshell, the settlement stands in sharp contrast to the delightful fragrance permeating the temple area.

The original settlers

Delving into the history, K.V. Narasimham, a resident of the ST Colony who works as a homeguard in the Police department, says his ancestors originally resided on the same hill in the Chintapaka area near the Madhava Swamy temple, a small structure on the same hill, about 500 metres from the ST Colony. His ancestors were brought to the temple to serve as security personnel, he says.

“That’s how they decided to settle here. The elders used to collect forest produce from the hills and sell it on the temple ghat roads in those days, but now our people are doing menial jobs as sweepers and sanitation workers at the temple, or selling flowers to visitors,” he adds.

However, some others, including former sarpanch Pasarla Prasad, contend that the hamlet belonged to the hill tribes, who were the initial inhabitants. Subsequently, as the temple developed and roads were laid, people started going up the hill to worship the Simhachalam temple deity. According to them, the tribe called Boyina Durgadu stumbled upon the temple and started worship.

The Simhachalam hills, where the hamlet is situated, serves as a natural barrier, safeguarding the city from calamities like cyclones. Located on the west side of the core city, this geographic feature attracts environmentalists and ornithologists for activities such as bird watching and trekking. Despite the temple’s widespread fame, the tribal village adjacent to it remains unknown to the world.

“People here prefer to be isolated from the modern world. Only one girl from here has completed her post-graduation and a few others are graduates. Some still live in mud houses, depend on mud-stoves and firewood for cooking,” says Narasimham.

The hamlet has 50 houses. Typically, two or three families share a single house since only a few have metered electricity connections. Every Thursday, the residents visit the weekly market at the foot of the hill to buy groceries.

Men here maintain familial ties in Narsipatnam, Kotavuratla, Chodavaram, Devarapalli, Koonam, Madugula, and Paderu tribal regions of the erstwhile Visakhapatnam district. While young women often seek grooms in those areas and settle there, the men usually find local girls to marry. Outsiders are hesitant to marry brides to the men here, citing the hamlet’s poor infrastructure such as damaged houses and roads.

Slip between the cup and lip

Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) scheme, attempts were made to get 77 houses sanctioned for the residents. Beneficiaries were identified in 2008 during Mukesh Kumar Meena’s tenure as commissioner of Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC), says P. Vasantha Kalyani, who was corporator of 72nd ward then.

“The process was abruptly halted after officials found out that the temple authorities had already arranged for houses for the tribals as part of the relocation drive under the PRASAD scheme,” she explains.

During the monsoon, the houses and stairways become narrower due to mud accumulation from the hill. The slope allows rainwater to enter their settlement, leaving them miserable. Those without access to water and other basic facilities resort to collecting water from streams and gathering firewood for cooking. The hamlet is also prone to snake encounters due to the densely forested hills.

“We get seasonal fevers, but we don’t worry about it. It is because our body has adapted to the climatic conditions here. The only problem is the lack of infrastructure,” says Kundi Prasad, 50, who works as the sweeping supervisor of the temple on a contractual basis.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader T.V. Krishnamraju, who is advocating for tribal rights, says the temple authorities have built some houses on the hill and spent crores of rupees in the name of cottages, which remain unused. He suggests repurposing the structures for tribal housing with minor repairs or renovation.

Property rights

He points out that the GVMC appears to have stopped collecting house tax from tribals here, raising concerns about their property rights. “Payment of taxes is the proof of ownership of properties. But, as tax is not collected, people are worried about their rights on the hamlet here,” Krishnamraju asserts.

The issue of tax collection has been brought to the notice of the current GVMC corporator (98th ward) Pisini Varaha Narasimha, who promises to address it with the officials concerned. “If this is true, it will be brought to the notice of GVMC officials and justice will be given to the people. However, shifting the tribals from there is completely the lookout of the temple management,” he explains.

Executive Officer of the Simhachalam Devasthanam, S. Srinivasa Murthy clarifies that there is currently no directive to evict the ST Colony residents: “There has been no progress on the previous proposals of evacuation of the tribals in the hamlet. It is true that his predecessors had requested to shift them from the present place to another area for the temple development under the PRASAD scheme, but now, there is no movement in that proposal. However, we are willing to listen to them.”

Sources say the reluctance to disturb the residents stems from their adaptation to living conditions and the climate, making them well-suited for temple security. Expressing frustration, a tribal resident, requesting anonymity, says, “Let them relocate us to a place with proper facilities or ensure essential services where we are right now. But first, they should stop treating us as lesser mortals.”

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