CHANDIGARH, India (Reuters) - At least 123 people, mostly women and children, were crushed to death under the feet of thousands of pilgrims in a stampede at a temple in Himachal Pradesh on Sunday, police said.
Chanting and singing hymns, Hindu worshippers were snaking up a 4-km trail, leading to a hill-top temple in Bilaspur district, when part of iron railings on one side of the road broke, causing the stampede.
Thinking there was a landslide, the pilgrims panicked and started fleeing down the hillside, trampling falling women and children, police and witnesses said.
“As of now we have 123 people dead, including more than 40 children,” Daljit Singh Manhas, a senior police officer told Reuters.
“The injured have been taken to two places and the toll could be more as we are awaiting news from other hospitals,” Manhas added. He said at least 45 women were among the dead.
Thousands of worshippers had gathered at the temple to pray to a Hindu goddess during an annual festival.
Authorities said at last 48 people were injured, but this figure could also 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, parts of 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 women pilgrim pleading for water in a corner as rescuers brought more injured people on stretchers for treatment.
More than 10,000 people were trying to get into the temple and police had to struggle desperately to keep the situation under control.
“There were too many rumours, and we tried our best to keep things under control, but it went out of hand,” one officer said.
Most of the worshippers were from neighbouring Punjab, with numbers rising 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 Maharashtra.