A religious pilgrimage turned into a disaster when at least 145 people – most of them women and children – were killed as a crowd of thousands stampeded at a Hindu shrine in northern India.
Police said that a crowd of up to 10,000 pilgrims may have panicked yesterday morning after heavy rains caused loose stones to tumble down a hillside as they made their way up a narrow two-and-a-half mile path to a hill-top temple in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh.
As the stones began to move, people started running down the mountain, breaking iron railings and trampling people underfoot as they made their way to safety. At the same time, thousands of people were still trying to make their way uphill to the temple. The scene of the carnage was littered with discarded sandals, flowers and torn clothes last night.
"We have confirmation now that 145 people have been killed," Daljit Singh Manhas, a senior police officer, told Reuters. "We found eight to 10 stones which had fallen off and probably scared the people, causing the stampede." A total 37 people were injured and taken to hospital, the police said.
Earlier police had put the death toll at 68, but victims who had tumbled down the mountain when a guard rail broke were discovered later.
At least 50,000 pilgrims had flocked to the Naina Devi temple in Bilaspur district, 150 miles north of Delhi, to pray to Shakrti, a Hindu goddess, during an annual festival which lasts for nine days. A large number of those present were children and in the chaos many lost their grip on their parents' hands as people began running downhill on the second day of the pilgrimage.
"Many children and women were shouting for help and I saw people tumbling down the hillside," said one pilgrim, Dev Swarup. "There were rumours of boulders coming down on us and we all ran like the others."
Police said they did their best to stop people from panicking but that they were overcome by the numbers. Many of the pilgrims were from the neighbouring state of Punjab. Television footage showed the scene of the disaster strewn with torn clothes and bags with flowers and offerings.
At the Bilaspur hospital, rescue workers unloaded bodies wrapped in brown blankets from a truck and laid them in rows for identification. Survivors pondered why the incident should have befallen a group of worshippers. "I rushed to the spot in search of my three children who had gone to [pray] at the hilltop shrine," said Jawahar Khurana, as he searched the bodies. "I fail to understand why God was so cruel to us."
Police said they used a cable car to bring some of the injured off the hillside. Helicopters were brought in to take the wounded to hospital.
Stampedes at temples are not uncommon in India where thousands of people gather to pray during festivals. Sometimes hundreds of thousands of people congregate in small areas that lack adequate facilities for such large numbers. In 2005, about 265 pilgrims were killed in a stampede near a temple in the western state of Maharashtra.
There have been three stampedes this year, but yesterday's incident was the deadliest.