| Bodies of women killed in the Kumbh Mela stampede lie in a Nashik hospital. (Reuters)
|Sadhus and pilgrims at the Nashik Kumbh Mela throng the Godavari bank just before the stampede. (PTI)
Nashik, Aug. 27: Forty-year-old K. Murari had escorted his mother-in-law and two other elderly women from Patna for the grand bath during the Kumbh Mela. This evening, barely able to walk himself, he was trying to organise the return journey — with three dead people.
And wondering: “How will I show my face there'”
His relatives were among 35 people who died this afternoon in a stampede that left the authorities searching for the cause.
Twenty-eight of the dead were women, crushed as thousands of pilgrims pressed forward to reach a pond — the Ram Kund on the bank of the Godavari — through a lane that is no more than 10-foot wide and hemmed in by houses on either side.
Iron-rail barricades had been placed in the maze of lanes leading up to the bathing points — a second one is called Lakshman Kund — to control the crowds.
Police said the stampede occurred around 1.35 pm when the barricades collapsed under the force of the onrush of devotees in Sardar Chowk anxious to get to the pond only five minutes’ walk away.
“My 60-year-old mother-in-law was pushed and people stamped on her. She died on the spot,” Suman Mahashinde told Reuters.
A couple of witnesses said they saw some people, described as sadhus, distributing prasad and throwing what appeared to be silver coins, sparking a scramble among devotees to collect them. But there was no official confirmation of this version.
Through the day groups of devotees moved in opposite directions — one section making its way to the bathing points and another coming away after the dip.
Today was the day for the shahi snan (grand bath) — held on Shravan amavasya — during the mela that started on July 27. Bathing at the mela is believed to not only wash away a pilgrim’s sins but also benefit 88 previous generations.
Astrologers had predicted disaster on this day when Mars passed closer to Earth than any time in the past 60,000 years. It came closest within two hours of the stampede.
Officially, the toll is being put at 31 with the number of injured stated to be 72. Four others were said to have drowned.
Around 2 lakh people were in the area when the stampede took place. Even as the dead and injured were being carried away, pilgrims continued their dips at other bathing points.
Even until midnight, devotees were taking baths while the poorer among them slept in the lanes around, including the scene of the stampede.
At least one person, Senu Bala (65), a resident of Howrah, from Bengal was among the dead. Purchand Mhatre (75), also from Howrah, was on the official list of the injured.
Nearly 10,000 people from Calcutta and its neighbourhood have gone to the mela. J.R. Laddha, a businessman, told The Telegraph on phone: “Some of my relatives had just come back from the ghats and things are okay there.”
But this was several hours after the incident. Laddha, of Aagyanuvartini Kumbh Mahaparva Samiti which has set up a makeshift township, said: “Around 1,000 people are staying with us. They are safe.”
The tragedy, coming two days after the Mumbai blasts, means more trouble for the Congress-led government of Sushil Kumar Shinde, with the administration having been criticised earlier for inadequate arrangements.
It was the worst stampede at a religious festival since 50 people were killed in 1986 at Hardwar.