SHIMLA, India (AFP) — Close to 150 Hindu worshippers, including scores of children, are confirmed to have died at a temple in northern India in the worst stampede in the country in three years, police said Monday.
Tens of thousands of people had thronged the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh state to attend week-long religious festivities when the rumour of a landslide triggered panic among devotees on Sunday.
"The death toll as of now is 148, and 48 people are injured," a police spokesman said early Monday.
Police started hitting devotees with batons to check the commotion, but this only created further panic, witnesses said.
"People started pushing their way back and many women and children fell down. Whoever fell down was trampled upon by the surge of devotees," Mohni Singh, a local television journalist who was present at the site, told AFP.
The bodies of devotees were strewn along the steep four-kilometre (2.5-mile) path leading up to the temple, located about 150 kilometres from the state capital Shimla, witnesses said late Sunday.
Around 50 people with minor injuries were Monday getting treatment at a hospital in neighbouring Punjab state, where most of the deceased came from.
Punjab's chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal, announced the next of kin of the dead would receive 100,000 rupees (2,400 dollars) in compensation.
Despite the huge loss of life, officials said the pilgrimage was continuing only hours after the corpses were cleared.
The temple, devoted to goddess Naina Devi, is located at a hilltop in the the Himalayas and visitors have to climb a narrow stairway to access it.
The shrine has been the site of previous deadly accidents.
In the early 1980s, more than 50 people died in a similar stampede. After that incident, authorities constructed separate passages for entry and exit.
Temple crushes are common during festivities in India, where crowd control management is often rudimentary at best.
Six people died in similar circumstances at a popular Hindu festival in July in the eastern state of Orissa, where about one million people had gathered in the town of Puri for an annual celebration.
In March, nine people were killed and many more injured at a religious gathering in central India when a railing broke at the temple premises, leading to a stampede among 100,000 devotees.
In one of India's deadliest stampedes, 257 people were killed during a Hindu pilgrimage in western Maharashtra state in January 2005.
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