Stampede kills 145 Hindu worshippers in north India

At least 145 people, mostly women and children, were crushed to death under the feet of thousands of pilgrims in a stampede at a temple in northern India on Sunday, police said.

Hindu worshippers, chanting and singing hymns, were snaking up a 4-km (2.5-mile) trail leading to a hill-top temple in Himachal Pradesh state when the stampede occurred.

Police said the pilgrims might have panicked after heavy rains caused some loose stones from a retaining wall along the hilly trail to fall.

The pilgrims started fleeing down the slope, breaking an iron side railing and trampling falling women and children under their feet, said Daljit Singh Manhas, a senior police officer.

"We have confirmation now that 145 people have been killed," he told Reuters. "We found eight to 10 stones which had fallen off and probably scared the people, causing the stampede."

At least 40 children and 45 women were among the dead, police and health department officials said.

Thousands of worshippers had gathered at the temple in Bilaspur district to pray to a Hindu goddess during the annual festival.

Authorities said at last 48 people were injured, but this figure could rise as dozens of people were admitted to private clinics as well.

Witnesses said people jumped over broken railings and bodies to save themselves. Children lost their grip on their mothers' hands and were crushed under the feet of scared pilgrims.

"Many children and women were shouting for help and I saw people tumbling down the hillside," pilgrim Dev Swarup, 48, told Reuters by telephone from Bilaspur.

"There were rumours of boulders coming down on us and we all ran like the others," said Swarup, his voice choked with emotion.

Slippers, torn clothes and bags with flowers and offerings lay along the narrow path winding up the hill, television pictures showed.

People crowded into hospitals looking for injured relatives.

A television channel showed a young woman pilgrim pleading for water in a corner as rescuers brought in more injured people on stretchers for treatment.

More than 10,000 people were trying to get into the temple when the stampede began and police had been struggling desperately to keep the situation under control.

"There were too many rumours, we tried our best to keep things under control but it went out of hand," one officer said.

Most of the worshippers were from the neighbouring state of Punjab, and their numbers rose sharply at the weekend.

Stampedes at temples are not uncommon in India where thousands of people gather to pray during festivals. In 2005, about 265 pilgrims were killed in a stampede near a temple in the western state of Maharashtra.