Deadly stampede at Hindu festival

At least 39 people, mostly women, were killed on Wednesday in a stampede by Hindu worshippers rushing to bathe in one of western India’s holiest rivers at a festival held every three years, doctors said.

Several witnesses said the victims were trampled to death when pilgrims broke down a barricade blocking their way to the Godavari river on a narrow street in the town of Nashik, 187km north of Bombay.

Ashok Wankede, the chief surgeon at Nashik’s hospital, said that 39 people were killed and more than 124 hurt, with most injuries minor.

Prakash Rajput, another doctor at the hospital, said the vast majority of the dead were women, many of whom suffocated from being crushed under the toppled barricade.

“They are being treated and we are trying our best to provide all facilities,” Maharashtra state’s Health Minister Digvijay Khanvilkar said.

Millions of Hindus participate in the Kumbh Mela, or Nectar Pot Fair, which takes place every three years in a different part of India. The festival opened this year on July 30 when the Sun and Jupiter entered the constellation of Leo and is due to end on September 8.

More than 2,5-million Hindu priests and devotees clad in saffron and white had been expected on Wednesday to throng into Nashik, dancing and singing songs in the procession towards a sacred riverbank known as Ram Kund.

According to legend, the spot is where the Hindu warrior god Ram, accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Laxman, spent his years in the jungles after being forced into exile by his father.

Uttam Rao Dhikle, the member of India’s Parliament who represents Nashik, a city of 800 000 people, said the stampede broke out when a massive crowd was blocked on a narrow bylane by a barricade—set up to make the procession run more smoothly.

“The police couldn’t control the crowd. [The pilgrims] broke down the barricade,” Dhikle told television reporters.

“The crowds were all trying to reach the same areas.”

City police commissioner PT Lohar said, however, that the stampede seemed to have broken out in a mad scramble by pilgrims to collect coins either thrown or dropped by holy men fresh from their bath.

Hundreds of people gathered at Nashik’s hospital, some wheeling the badly mangled bodies of loved ones in on stretchers.

Chaman Kaushik, who came to the holy festival from the northern state of Punjab, said “arrangements were very bad”.

“We only had one route to come and leave,” Kaushik said.
“Most of the victims were women and children.”

Thousands of police and lifeguards were on guard to prevent unrest and drownings during the dip into the river.

“Local authorities had been given strict instructions to ensure that pilgrims formed lines,” Maharashtra Home Minister Kripashankar Singh said.

“But suddenly there was a crowd that pressed the barricade. Many were killed by suffocation,” he said, adding that an investigation had been ordered.

He said the families of the dead would each be given 200 000 rupees ($4 370) and the injured would be compensated with 50 000 rupees ($1 090).

A municipal official said the major lanes around Nashik had been blocked since Wednesday morning.

“Even our waiting ambulances cannot reach the spot to give first aid to the trampled people,” the official said.

It was the second tragedy to befall Maharashtra state this week.

On Monday, 52 people were killed in twin car bombings near a landmark monument and outside a Hindu temple in India’s financial capital Bombay.

While officials have given their own explanations, India’s influential astrologers say the spell of ill fortune is being caused by Mars, the planet of war, which is now at its closest to Earth in 60 000 years.—Sapa-AFP

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