Tragedy at the temple as women and children die in stampede

A stampede that broke out as thousands of people jostled for free food outside a Hindu temple yesterday left scores dead and many more wounded. Most of the victims were women and children.

The chaos started at the temple located in the north Indian town of 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.

The state authorities have ordered an inquiry into the tragedy, which appears to have been triggered by panic after one of the temple's gates collapsed. Some people were crushed under the gate, while others tripped and fell under the feet of the surging crowd as devotees tried to escape through a narrow corridor. At least 63 people were killed and more than 200 injured.

"The children fell first and the women, in their attempt to save them, fell on them," one witness, called Shiv, told news agency Reuters. "The crowd just trampled on whoever fell on the ground."

According to police, thousands of farmers and villagers had gathered at the temple in the state of Uttar Pradesh for the meals that were handed out to commemorate the death of the wife of Kripalu Maharaj, the religious leader who had built the temple.

Witnesses said the handful of policemen on duty found it difficult to control the crowd. In the aftermath of the incident, local residents helped police remove the bodies as officials began the process of identification. Hundreds of people gathered at the local hospital for news of the wounded and dead.

Gudal, a 38-year-old farmer whose seven-year-old daughter, Ranjana, was killed, said: "She had just wandered in to see what was happening."

Fatal stampedes are not uncommon at temples in India where religious festivals are often celebrated by thousands. Facilities are rarely designed to hold such numbers and police often fail to control the movement of crowds or their numbers. Some reports claim that up to 700 people have died in such incidents in the past eight years.

In 2008, at least 285 people died in two temple stampedes involving large crowds in northern India.

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