At least 115 pilgrims, many of them women and children, have been killed and dozens more injured in a stampede at a temple in the heartland of India. Reports said the stampede may have in part been caused by police baton-charging thousands of people gathered for a major Hindu festival.
Officials in the state of Madhya Pradesh have ordered a judicial inquiry following the incident at the Ratangarh temple, located 40 miles west of the town of Datia. As many as 400,000 people had reportedly gathered at the Ratangarh temple for festivities ahead of Monday’s Dussehra holiday.
"The death toll has increased to 115 and the rescue operation is over," Dilip Arya, a deputy inspector general of police, told Reuters.
Stampedes at temples in India are not uncommon and can be triggered by anything that causes the large crowds that gather. The Ratangarh temple is famous for attracting large crowds during major events.
In this instance, local media reported that people had started to worry that a bridge across the Sindh river, near the shrine, was set to collapse. The narrow bridge is about 500m long, and had only recently been rebuilt following a previous stampede in 2007.
It was reported that in an attempt to control the panic, police using batons to charge the crowd but this exacerbated the problem. Most of those who died did so as a result of the crush; others were drowned as they jumped off the bridge into the water.
Some of the devotees apparently hurled stones at the police. A number of people are reportedly missing and divers were called in to search the river.
The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, expressed his regret over what had happened and announced compensation payments to the families of those killed and to individuals who were injured.
India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said in a statement: “On this day of festivities, our hearts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
Mr Arya the policeman, denied that the police had charged at the pilgrims and said there had been “no baton-charge”.
But one eye witness, Manoj Sharma, who lives in the Datia area and who had gone to the temple with friends, told the Times of India newspaper that a police baton-charge “during the panic worsened the situation, forcing many to jump off the bridge”
Hindus have been celebrating the end of the Navaratri festival, dedicated to the worship of the god Durga, which draws millions of worshippers to temples especially in northern India.
Religious festivals frequently attract huge crowds and one of the most important logistical tasks for organisers and police is preventing people from being crushed. Yet all too often, such festivities end in tragedy.
In 2008, more than 220 people were killed in a stampede at the Chamunda Devi Hindu temple inside Jodhpur's famous Mehrangarh Fort.
In the spring of 2010, dozens were killed at a temple at Kunda, around 100 miles south of Lucknow, as people gathered to collect meals and clothes that were being distributed to mark the anniversary of the death of the wife of the temple’s founder, a popular local religious leader.
In February, at least 36 people were killed at a train station as they tried to make their way home from the massive Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges at Allahabad.