Jodhpur, Sep 30 (IANS) At least 144 people were crushed to death Tuesday when hundreds of worshippers fell over one another following a stampede at an ancient hilltop temple complex in the Mehrangarh fort here in Rajasthan in one of the worst tragedies of its kind in India, officials said.
An estimated 300 people were injured and some battled for life in hospitals as temple and government officials groped in the dark over what led to the horrific tragedy at the Chamunda Mata temple in the heart of Jodhpur town, about 330 km from the state capital Jaipur.
Hours later, some people were frantically running from one hospital to another looking for their missing kin. All over Jodhpur, numerous families prepared to light funeral pyres.
Home Secretary S.N. Thanvi told IANS that 144 people had been declared dead. He said the figure was expected to go up because many of the injured were in critical condition.
The disaster took place around 6 a.m., less than three hours after the temple -- built in 1460 in the imposing fort -- opened for prayers on the occasion of Navaratri. According to one account, 8,000-10,000 men, women and children were gathered in the complex, using a narrow pathway leading to the temple.
Almost all the dead were believed to be males because the stampede took place in the male section of two parallel and winding barricades set up on a pathway on the mountain slope.
Survivors recalled how an unexpected panic run killed so many -- in just 30 minutes.
'Everything moved so far that we did not even understand what happened,' said Kamal, a 24-year-old young man who was in the queue of devotees on the hill. 'Suddenly we saw people run and fall over each other. By god's grace, we saved ourselves.'
Added Rammurti, a 30-year-old man: 'I was in the middle of a very long queue. People had started to gather since early morning, since 3 a.m. All of a sudden people started to run and fall on one another. I escaped but my feet got crushed.'
Not everyone was that lucky.
'I am trying to locate my only son,' pleaded Kamla, a woman with tears in her eyes. 'I have been to two hospitals but I cannot find him. Please help me.'
It was one of the worst tragedies of its kind in the country. Earlier this year 145 people died in a stampede at the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh.
The stampede Tuesday occurred about 150 feet from the shrine when the devotees were rushing downhill. With no motorable road reaching up to the temple, it was left to devotees to carry the dead and wounded for about half a kilometre from where they were put into ambulances and private vehicles to reach the hospital.
Some men carried the barely living on their shoulders. Three to four men formed groups to carry the bodies physically in the absence of stretchers.
Explained Akash, a visitor to the temple: 'I must have brought two or three injured on my back down the hill. The scene was very bad. Bodies lay here and there. The injured were crying in pain.'
Home Minister G.C. Kataria called it 'a massive tragedy' and said the stampede perhaps started when a male devotee slipped and fell on the five-or-six-feet-wide path, triggering panic run that led to so many deaths.
According to Kataria, after one man fell, the barricades gave way, and the others coming down the hill also began to roll down the pathway. 'People just kept falling over one another,' he said.
Numbed by the tragedy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed 'shock and grief' over the deaths. 'He has conveyed his sympathy and condolences to the bereaved families,' said a statement from the office of Manmohan Singh who is now in France.
Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari said: 'We express grief over the deaths.' Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh also voiced 'deep condolences' to the victims and their families.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) urged the central government to form disaster management teams during major festivals to prevent such recurring tragedies.
The temple is located in the massive Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. It is one of the best maintained forts in India, and a major tourist attraction in Rajasthan.
Chamunda was the favourite goddess of Rao Jodha, the king of Jodhpur. He brought her idol from his old capital of Mandore in 1460 and installed it at the Mehrangarh fort. The goddess remains the patron deity of Jodhpur's royal family.
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