At least 12 people were killed and 13 injured in a stampede at a religious temple in India early Saturday, as thousands of pilgrims gathered to offer prayers, officials said.
The disaster happened around 3:00 am, when it was still dark on the way to the Vaishno Devi temple in Occupied Kashmir, one of the country’s most revered Hindu sites.
Witness Ravinder, who gave only one name, said, “People fell on top of each other… it was difficult to ascertain whose legs or hands got entangled with whom.” AFP By phone from the scene.
“I helped lift eight bodies till the ambulance arrived after about half an hour. I feel lucky to be alive but still tremble at the memory of what I saw,” he said.
An official said there was a rush to offer special prayers for the new year, but others did not confirm this.
Millions of pilgrimage sites dot the cities, towns and villages of Hindu-majority India, as well as remote sites in the Himalayas or in the forests to the south.
There are some extremely important pilgrimage sites and the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested heavily in improving infrastructure to ease access.
Before the pandemic, every day around 100,000 devotees traveled through a winding winding path to the narrow cave that houses the shrine of Vaishno Devi.
Authorities had limited the daily number to 25,000, but witnesses and press reports said it could be several times higher.
In 2008, there were two stampedes in India in so many months, in which more than 370 Hindus were killed. The others killed more than 100 people each in 2011 in Kerala and two years later in Madhya Pradesh.
In the latest incident, other reports suggested that an argument broke out among the devotees.
Rescue operations began immediately and the injured – some of whom were reported to be in critical condition – were taken to hospital.
Video footage on social media showed small minivan ambulances running to hospitals with flashing lights, while it was still dark, as well as huge crowds.
Entry into the temple was stopped after the stampede but was resumed later.
The temple of Vaishno Devi, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Vaishnavi, is in the hills about 60 km from the city of Jammu.
People travel to the nearby busy town of Katra and then hike for about 15 kilometers on foot or by pony – there is also a helicopter service – to the cave entrance where they often have to wait for hours.
Eyewitness Ravinder said that the crush happened at the place where a huge crowd of people coming down from the dargah meets those going upstairs.
He estimated that there were at least 100,000 people.
“No one was checking the registration slips of the devotees. I have been there many times but have never seen such a crowd of people.”
“When some of us managed to lift a dead body with our hands, people could see (what was happening) and made space for the bodies to be taken out,” he said.
Another witness, who came from Ghaziabad outside New Delhi with a group of around 10 people, said there was “mismanagement”.
“If we knew that there was such a crowd, they should have stopped the people,” the man said without giving his name.
Modi said on Twitter that he was “extremely saddened”.
Other senior officials, including the president, offered their condolences, and the home minister called the tragedy “heartbreaking”.