Crush at shrine leaves 168 dead

The Baltimore Sun

NEW DELHI, India -

A religious festival in northern India turned into a horrific deadly crush yesterday as thousands of Hindu pilgrims stampeded at a temple shrine, piling into each other on a treacherous walkway slick with spilled coconut milk. Officials said at least 168 people, most of them men, suffocated.

Television images showed dead pilgrims strewn on the narrow walkway near the Chamunda Devi temple, at the southern edge of the 15th-century Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, in the western state of Rajasthan. It was the second deadly religious tragedy in the past few months in India, where pilgrim stampedes are not uncommon. The victims were suffocated as they rushed down the path from the temple 150 yards above, officials said. Naresh Pal Gangwar, a district collector, told the Associated Press that at least 168 people were killed in the stampede.

Yesterday was the first day of the nine-day Navratra festival, which celebrates nine incarnations of the Hindu mother goddess Durga. Between 2,000 and 3,000 pilgrims were present when the stampede began about 6 a.m.

The exact cause of the stampede was unclear, although some pilgrims said the chaos began with false rumors of a bomb. Officials said the disaster was worsened by devotees who had brought cracked coconuts as religious offerings, which slickened the temple floors and surroundings with coconut milk. Once the stampede started, many victims slipped and fell as they scrambled to escape.

"It seems the narrow path became very slippery," said Kiran Soni Gupta, chief civil servant in the district. "Most of the dead are men and without any visible physical injuries. It seems they died of suffocation."

She said 55 people were injured, with two of them in serious condition.

"The injured do not have any major physical injuries, not even a simple fracture," said Dr. D.R. Mathur of Mahatma Gandhi hospital in Jodhpur. "None of the dead bodies have any injury marks. They all died of suffocation."

"Everybody was in hurry and heated arguments took place before the stampede," a witness said on television.

In August, 148 people died in Himachal Pradesh in similar circumstances. In 2005, a fire and stampede at the Mandhar Devi hilltop temple in western India left more than 250 dead.

"A separate queue was arranged for women and children and police was deployed at 2 a.m., so all the necessary arrangements were made," said Gulab Chand Kataria, the home minister of Rajasthan.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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