x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

145 temple pilgrims die in stampede

At least 145 worshippers are killed in a stampede at a temple during a religious festival in Himachal Pradesh, northern India.

Iron railings leading to the Hindu temple broke, causing the stampede, senior police officers said.
Iron railings leading to the Hindu temple broke, causing the stampede, senior police officers said.

NEW DELHI // At least 145 Hindu pilgrims, more than half of them women and children, were trampled to death in a stampede during a religious festival at a hilltop temple in northern India yesterday. At least 48 other pilgrims were injured during the second of a nine-day Hindu religious festival at the Naina Devi temple in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh state. The death toll was expected to rise as rescue teams rushed to the accident site and launched relief and rescue efforts. They will be doing so in rainy, monsoon conditions on a mountainside with narrow paths. The number of injured is likely to be higher as well because many were admitted to private clinics. Police told television news channels shortly after the incident, which took place 160km from the provincial capital of Shimla, that the dead included 45 women and 40 children. About 10,000 people were trying to enter the hilltop temple when the stampede began. Normally 50,000 make the pilgrimage daily during the nine days, officials said. District officials said the stampede might have erupted because of rumoured landslides. Monsoon rains had caused some loose stones in a retaining wall to fall along the four-kilometre trail. As the stones fell, the worshippers, in winding queues waiting to make offerings inside the temple's inner sanctum, were reported to have panicked and fled down the slope resulting in chaos. A network of fences or railings along the trail leading to the mountain temple then broke and dozens fell to their deaths. Others were crushed under pilgrims making their way back down the trail or jumped over the railing to escape the rushing crowd. Mothers could not keep a grip on their children, who were then lost under the feet of the scared mob. Television channels showed blurred pictures from the shrine of the bodies of several small children, apparently lying at the bottom of the path. Afterwards slippers, torn clothes and bags with flowers lay on the narrow winding path. "I rushed to the spot in search of my three children who had gone to pay obeisance at the hilltop shrine," Jawahar Khurana told the Press Trust of India news agency as he searched the bodies. "I fail to understand why God was so cruel to us." "There were too many rumours, we tried our best to keep things under control but it went out of hand," one officer said. The majority of victims died of suffocation, police said. "A lot of people were confined in a small area," the district chief, C P Verma, told the NDTV news channel. The pilgrims had come to the temple to celebrate Shravan Navratras, a festival that honours the Hindu goddess Shakrti, or divine mother. Many of the deceased were from neighbouring Punjab state, from where additional police and rescue teams are being rushed to the temple for relief, officials said. Police ferried the dead and wounded down the mountain using cable cars. Helicopters were flown in to help with rescue efforts at the remote temple in the foothills of the Himalayas. At the Bilaspur hospital, rescue workers unloaded bodies wrapped in brown blankets from a lorry and laid them in rows so they could be identified by relatives. "At the moment our efforts are focused on rescue. Once that is compete we will investigate the cause," said Anurag Garg, another senior police officer. Stampedes and drownings are common occurrences in and near temples across India during religious festivals, which are attended by tens of thousands of people. Larger numbers of people, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, attend these gatherings in small shrines that lack the facilities to accommodate or control such big gatherings. Six people died in a stampede at a well-attended Hindu festival in eastern Orissa state in July, when more than a million worshippers had gathered in the coastal town of Puri for annual celebrations. In March nine devotees were killed at another religious gathering, this one in central India, when a railing broke at the temple premises causing a massive stampede. * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters rbedi@thenational.ae