Mumbai, Jan. 25: Just when the tsunami shock was beginning to ebb, another tragedy has revisited the country.
Around 330 pilgrims, including many children, are feared to have been trampled or burned to death in a stampede and subsequent fire near a temple in Maharashtra this afternoon.
Officials said a short circuit may have sparked a fire in roadside stalls when several lakhs were on an annual pilgrimage to the Mandhardevi temple, on a hilltop near Wai in Satara district.
Various theories, ranging from short circuit to wet steps, did the rounds on the cause of the tragedy ' a not too uncommon occurrence that stalks massive religious congregations in the country.
On August 27, 2003, over 30 pilgrims died in a stampede at Nashik ' also in Maharashtra ' during the Kumbh Mela.
The hilltop tragedy came a day before Republic Day, rekindling memories of another disaster ' the Gujarat earthquake on January 26, 2001.
In Wai, most officials said the stampede took place because of 'overcrowding' and short circuit.
Around 3 lakh people had collected at the temple today, on the occasion of Paush Purnima, which was being considered doubly auspicious since it was also a Tuesday, deemed a favourable day to visit temples in Maharashtra.
Many witnesses said the stampede occurred after some devotees, pushed ahead by the surging crowds, fell against an electric pole, sparking the short circuit.
The crowd panicked and tried to run, crushing hundreds, most of them women, children and aged people. Scores were trampled to death on the steep and narrow hill path leading to the temple.
A witness said the stampede took place when devotees who were to exit from another side of the temple after worship came back into the lane through which others were getting into the shrine.
Others said the stampede started around midday after pilgrims slipped on the temple's steep stone steps, which had become wet after coconuts were broken.
In the middle of the stampede, a section of the crowd went berserk, attacking policemen on duty and ransacking shops that lined the approach road to the temple.
Around 30-odd shops were burnt ' the fire engulfing gas cylinders kept in the shops and on the temple premises and igniting explosions. 'Several of the bodies are charred,' said Varsha Deshpande, a resident of Wai.
It was not clear whether the blaze in the shops was responsible for any deaths or whether the fire charred bodies crushed in the stampede.
Dishevelled and mangled bodies were lined up as tin-roofed stalls smouldered near the temple and adjoining settlements. 'It is utter mayhem here. The sheds are still smouldering,' another witness said.
The main celebrations of the annual festival fell today. The temple is famous for fulfilment of wishes.
Every year, lakhs of devotees arrive during the yatra to make a wish. If their wish is fulfilled, they come back the following year to make a sacrificial offering to the goddess.
Many devotees sacrifice goats to the goddess on Paush Purnima.