Panic kills at least 168 at Indian temple

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

JODHPUR, India -- Thousands of pilgrims panicked by false rumors of a bomb stampeded at a Hindu temple in western India on Tuesday, killing at least 168 people in the crush to escape.

Television footage showed dozens of bodies lying on the sidewalk, while nearby frantic people tried to revive unconscious devotees, slapping their faces and pressing on their chests.

One child sat on the ground next to the body of a woman, rubbing her forehead and crying "Mother, Mother."

The disaster occurred just as the doors of the temple were being opened for worship at dawn for more than 12,000 people celebrating a key Hindu festival in the historic city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan state.

The chaos began with false rumors of a bomb, said Ramesh Vyas, a pilgrim who was standing in line.

Tensions are high because India has been hit by a spate of bomb attacks. The latest explosions Monday night in the western cities of Malegaon and Modasa killed six people and wounded 45.

Devotees had broken coconuts as religious offerings and so the temple's floors were slick with coconut milk, causing pilgrims to slip and fall as they scrambled to escape, Vyas said.

Other pilgrims had crammed a narrow 1 1/4-mile path leading to the temple, leaving little room for those fleeing to escape.

The chaos was made worse by the fact there was a power outage at the time. Some pilgrims slipped on the ramp leading to the shrine, the Press Trust of India news agency quoted director-general of state police K. S. Bains as saying.

At least 168 people were killed in the stampede, said Naresh Pal Gangwar, the district collector. Officials said 100 others were injured.

It was the third disaster this year at religious events in India, shocking Hindus as Tuesday marked the first day of Navratra, a nine-day Hindu festival to honor the Mother Goddess.

Deadly stampedes are a relatively common occurrence at temples in India, where large crowds -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of people -- congregate in small areas lacking facilities to control big gatherings.

In August, 145 people were killed when rumors of an avalanche sparked a stampede at a hilltop temple in northern India.

Jodhpur is some 180 miles southwest of the Rajasthan state capital of Jaipur.

The temple is located inside the 15th-century Mehrangarh fort that overlooks the town. The fort is one of the town's biggest tourist attractions with its huge walls, ornate interiors and views overlooking Jodhpur.

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