, LUCKNOW, Mar 4 – Sixty-three people, all of them women and children, were crushed to death on Thursday in a stampede at a temple in India when a gate collapsed triggering panic among the 10,000-strong crowd.
The devotees had gathered in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to receive food and clothes from a local holy man when the under-construction gate on the perimeter of the temple complex came crashing down, police said.
"We have now counted all the bodies and they include 37 children and 26 women who had come to collect free gifts," assistant superintendent of police S.P. Pathak told AFP by telephone from the scene.
State officials said organisers had been unprepared for the size of the crowd that assembled to meet holy man Kripaluji Maharaj at the Ram Janki temple in Pratapgarh, 650 kilometres (400 miles) southeast of New Delhi.
According to his website, Maharaj runs a charitable trust which sets up schools, temples and hospitals and operates five large Hindu ashrams (hermitages), including one in the United States.
Police said 125 people had been injured and were being treated at local hospitals or at the scene.
"I want my sister back," one distraught woman told the IBN7 news channel. "She came here to get clothes and sweets, but now she is dead."
"My wife would come here every day," another mourner said. "Today she came with her friends to participate in the event. She was found dead on the stairs of the temple."
Stampedes at religious events in India are common as large numbers of excited worshippers pack into congested areas. Panic can spread quickly and, with few safety regulations in place, the result is often lethal.
The worst recent incident was in October 2008 when about 220 people died near a temple inside Jodhpur\’s famous Mehrangarh Fort.
More than 25,000 worshippers had rushed towards the hill-top shrine to join in an auspicious moment for offering prayers at the start of Navaratri, a nine-day Hindu festival.
That stampede appeared to have started when a wall along the narrow path leading up to the temple collapsed, killing several people.
Hundreds of people were trampled and suffocated to death in the ensuing panic.
Also in 2008, 145 pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede after railings collapsed at a popular temple in Himachal Pradesh state.
Religious gatherings, pilgrimages and festivals are a part of daily life in India and Indians across the entire social spectrum participate regularly.
The choice is vast, as is the size of crowds, which can range from just a few hundred worshippers to the tens of millions who flock to the Kumbh Mela festivals at the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna rivers.
In most cases, crowd management measures are rudimentary, or even non-existent, and police action has often been blamed for exacerbating panic when things go wrong.
In 2004, 20 women died in a stampede when politicians handed out free clothes in a bid to garner votes for the Hindu nationalist BJP party.