A stampede among thousands of poor villagers scrambling for free food and clothes at a commemorative event killed 63 people Thursday at a Hindu temple in northern India and injured dozens of others.
Nearly all the victims were women and children. The stampede was so intense it knocked down a gate at the compound surrounding the temple in the small town of Kunda, on the northern plains of Uttar Pradesh state.
"How could this happen in such a holy place?" cried Phool Chand Saroj, a 48-year-old farmer whose wife, daughter and grandmother were killed in the stampede. "If they had been more careful about letting in the crowds this would not have happened."
While most men in the farming region worked in their fields, women from surrounding villages gathered with their children Thursday in Kunda for a midday handout of donations, an anniversary event marking the death of the wife of local religious leader Kripalu Maharaj. Giving food and other alms to the poor on death anniversaries is a common Hindu tradition.
The crush of people turned into a stampede that killed 63 and injured 44, government official Ashok Kumar said.
Hours after the tragedy, piles of unclaimed shoes sat inside the compound where victims had placed them before entering the temple.
Donations to victims' families
The compound in Kunda, some 110 miles southeast of the state capital of Lucknow, appeared to have been undergoing renovations. Bamboo and iron rods used in construction were strewn about the grounds, possibly causing some people to trip.
By late afternoon police had cleared the compound and taken all the bodies to an adjacent hospital, run by the temple, for identification and autopsies, said police official K.G. Khan. Outside, villagers wailed in anguish upon receiving word that their loved ones had perished.
Gudal, a 38-year-old farmer who uses only one name, wept over the death of her 7-year-old daughter, Ranjana.
"She had just wandered in to see what was happening," she said.
Deadly stampedes are a relatively common at temples in India, where large crowds — sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands — gather in tiny areas with no safety measures or crowd control. In 2008, more than 145 people died in a stampede at a remote Hindu temple at the foothills of the Himalayas.
The handout in Kunda is an annual tradition arranged by Maharaj and usually draws a few hundred people, but the event was announced more broadly this year and drew several thousand villagers, said state lawmaker Raghuraj Pratap Singh, who represents Kunda.
By Thursday evening, all the victims had been identified and police handed bodies over to relatives to carry back to home villages, Khan said. As bodies were claimed, temple officials at the hospital gave donations of 10,000 rupees ($220) to families who lost relatives.
Police deployed an ambulance for Saroj, the farmer, to take the bodies of his three relatives on the three-mile trip back to his village of Kazipur ahead of a cremation ceremony planned for Friday.