|Tears roll down the cheeks of a boy on Saturday after he heard his father had died in the stampede. (AP)
Vandiperiyar (Kerala), Jan. 15 (PTI): Altogether 102 pilgrims returning from the Sabarimala temple died in last nights stampede, triggered by a collision between a jeep and an auto-rickshaw, officials said.
Some 50 people were injured, seven seriously, in the tragedy on a grassy trekking path in the Periyar tiger reserve at Pullumedu, about 7km from the shrine.
Of the 77 dead identified till evening, 29 were from Tamil Nadu, 25 from Karnataka, 17 from Andhra Pradesh, five from Kerala and one was a woman from Sri Lanka.
A preliminary report by the administration of Idukki district, where the deaths took place, said the stampede was caused by panic after a jeep and auto grazed each other while plying the narrow trekking route and toppled over.
A few people got run over by the jeep, said Aneesh, a local man who was among the earliest to reach the spot. He blamed the high casualties on the large number of pilgrims gathered at the site.
I had never before seen such a huge crowd at Pullumedu in my life. It is obvious they were rushing home to celebrate Pongal after the holy darshan at the shrine during the auspicious Makaravilakku, Aneesh said.
The stampede spot is a patch of grassland on the trekking route where the devotees often stop to rest during the arduous downhill journey. The pilgrims were coming down to catch a bus when the stampede occurred, Kerala home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said.
Groups of pilgrims had spent the evening singing hymns and performing aarti with camphor. Although the stampede took place around 8.15pm, it took almost two hours before the outside world learnt about its magnitude because the area is remote and difficult to access even on mobile phones.
Police deployment for crowd management was also thin because the majority of pilgrims usually take the alternative route by the Pampa river. Poor lighting and a mountain mist contributed to the confusion at Pullumedu.
Kerala Devaswom minister K. Ramachandran, however, claimed that the crowd-control arrangements were on the usual scale but the flow of people was much higher than expected. Over 3 crore devotees had visited the shrine during the two-month pilgrimage.
Sources said Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi had worshipped at the shrine hours before the stampede and left for Mumbai.
Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan has announced a judicial inquiry and a Rs 5 lakh compensation for the family of each of the dead. The polices crime branch has already started a probe.
The Kerala government has declared a three-day state mourning. Some 86 doctors, 305 paramedical staff and 31 ambulances have been mobilised from various hospitals in nearby districts.
The state government will pay for the treatment of the injured, whether in government or private hospitals. As immediate assistance, the state has announced a relief of Rs 5,000 for each family. The Centre has sanctioned Rs 1 lakh for the family of each of the dead and Rs 50,000 for each injured.
This was the third time that Sabarimala pilgrims have had to contend with disaster on a January 14. On this date in 1952, a firework-triggered fire in the shrine killed 66 devotees and in 1998, a stampede killed 52 pilgrims on their downhill journey through the Pampa route.
Stampedes at religious places have claimed nearly 900 lives in the country in the past nine years, including over 200 at Jodhpurs Chamunda Devi temple in September 2008 and 150-plus at the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh the previous month.