At least 168 people were trampled to death and more than 425 were injured in a massive stampede at a Hindu temple in Jodhpur city, officials said, the third such tragedy in India in three months.
With no crowd control, more than 12,000 people had gathered at dawn to celebrate Navratra, a nine-day Hindu festival to honor the Mother Goddess, Jodhpur Police Superintendent Malini Agarwal told reporters. Witnesses said the early morning stampede began as false rumors of a bomb spread among the crowd.
“Everyone was yelling ‘there's a bomb, there's a bomb,' then I heard horrible screaming. It was the sound of total panic,” said Vikki Koshi, who manages Yogi's Guest House very close to the temple.
The temple's floor had become slippery when devotees in a male-only line broke hundreds of coconuts for offerings, officials said. “Someone slipped,” Home Minister G.C. Kataria told reporters. “Then people just kept falling over one another.” Most of the dead were males.
Also contributing to the pandemonium was a power outage and the collapse of a wall on the narrow path leading to the temple, officials said.
Television images of the scene afterward showed chaotic crowds hoisting limp bodies through the air. Hysterical women slapped the faces of husbands, trying to revive them, and wept over their bodies as paramedics tried to push through the crowds.
The tragedy occurred in the Chamunda Devi temple. It is nestled in the narrow passageways of the historic 15th-century Mehrangarh fort, a sprawling hilltop monument that overlooks the town.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje called for an inquiry into what could be done to prevent similar events in the future. Local business leaders and emergency rescue experts said India has a growing need for better planning at major religious festivals and stricter crowd control.
“People die simply because they are being suffocated by the crowds,” said Mahesh C. Misra, a trauma surgeon with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, who is trying to train people across the country in disaster management. “I think everyone realizes that we all want to do more to prevent these tragedies.”
Koshi also saw a need for action: “We can save lives if we just learn how to control these events. Maybe by only letting a certain number visit at a time.”
Across major cities in India, nerves have been rattled by a series of bomb blasts in busy markets since May. The latest occurred late Monday night in the western city of Malegaon, killing six people and wounding 45. On Saturday, a bomb exploded in a New Delhi market, killing two people and wounding at least 22.
Stampedes have long been a frequent occurrence during festival periods at Hindu temples in India, where colossal crowds – sometimes up to 100,000 – squeeze into maze-like areas.
In a similar crush, 145 people, 50 of them children, died at the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh this year. In July, six devotees were killed and 12 injured in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.