One of the things that Shanti, 35, the wife of the watchman and assistant cook at the Kichugutti Maramma Temple in Suluvadi village in Karnataka’s backward Chamarajnagar district cannot understand is why her husband is being considered a suspect in the December 14 poisoning death of 15 people at a temple event.
“Would he have fed our own daughter if he was aware that there was poison in the tomato rice served as prasad in the temple and would he have eaten it himself?’’ she asks at her home in the temple’s backyard where she lives with her extended family.
Shanti lost her 12-year-old physically challenged daughter Anitha after she consumed the pesticide-laced food served at the foundation stone laying ceremony at the Kichgutti Maramma Temple on December 14. Her husband Puttaswamy — the assistant cook and watchman at the temple — is battling for life in a hospital in Mysuru for the past three days. His name is among seven listed in an FIR by the local police while registering a case of culpable homicide.
“My daughter was one of the first to die that day. My two younger daughters, Arathi and Lavanya, went to school but Anitha went to the temple where her father was working to eat the prasadam. My husband fed her and ate some himself. She collapsed at the temple itself and he brought her home saying she was unwell but he was unwell himself,” Shanti said.
Along with Putaswamy, head cook Eranna and his main assistant Lokesh, who were in the kitchen that morning, figure among the list of suspects possibly involved in spiking the temple prasadam with poison on December 14. They too are in hospital.
Invesigations have found that a highly toxic pesticide — monochrotophos — was deliberately mixed with the food, an official involved with the probe indicated on Tuesday. Another police officer in the region, however, said the police were still waiting to question the cooks before arriving at any conclusion.
“One of the problems that we are facing is the fact that the three persons who were involved in the cooking that morning are still in hospital. We have not been able to question them as yet,” a local police officer said.
One of the angles of investigation being pursued by the police has been to look at all those involved with preparation of the food and the temple festivities and to look closely at anybody who may have avoided eating the food knowing that it was poisonous and those who stayed away from the event despite being closely associated with the temple.
Among those who have been questioned since the poisoning incident are the temple manager Chinnapi — a cement merchant, and a vice president who reportedly was among the first to arrive at the temple premises on the morning of the incident when the cooking began. A Lingayat seer who heads the temple trust but did not attend the foundation laying ceremony for a “gopuram” at the temple last Friday has also been questioned.
The Kichugutti Maramma temple is located on the fringes of forests on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border around 200 km from Bangalore in what was two decades ago an area dominated by forest brigand Veerappan and his gang. The once obscure temple has become popular in recent years with devotees developing great faith in the diety.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, when special poojas are held, hundreds of people from surrounding villages — including Tamil Nadu which is barely six km from Suluvadi village — visit the temple, says Ponappa, a truck driver who lives next to the temple.
Along with the inflow of devotees, the temple’s bank accounts too have grown. One of the lines of police investigation revolves around a dispute between the trustees of the temple and a seer who heads the trust with the seer being reportedly upset over being sidelined by other trustees like temple manager Chinnapi.
“The president of the trust wanted to spend Rs 80 lakh for the construction of the gopuram but the other trustees said the temple’s bank accounts had only around Rs 40 lakh of funds. The president was upset after the trust went ahead with the gopuram construction plans,” says Santosh, temple manager Chinnapi’s son.
“My father and others in the temple management did not eat the meal served that day because they were busy with the pujas,” he said.
Following the food poisoning incident, the Kichugutta Maramma Temple has been shut down by local authorities and wore a deserted look on Tuesday. “This is not how the temple would look on a Tuesday. There will be hundreds of people,” Nandish, a local said.
There is great anger among locals over the poisoning incident. “Whoever is behind this must go to the gallows,” says Kempamma, an elderly shop keeper outside the Holy Cross Hospital, located 43 km from Suluvadi where the first batch of 64 people who showed symptoms of poisoning were taken last week. Over a 100 people were affected by the poisoning.