MUMBAI, India – At least 29 people were killed Tuesday in a stampede on the banks of a river in southern India where huge crowds had gathered for the start of a once-in-a-century religious festival.
Officials and Indian media reports said the death toll could rise as scores of wounded were being treated at a hospital in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
The deaths reportedly occurred when devotees thronged one set of steps, or ghats, leading to the Godavari River to take a dip in the water at the start of the 12-day festival of Pushkaram. Worshippers believe that bathing in the water during the festival will cleanse them of their sins.
Officials said that when river authorities opened the gates shortly after sunrise, pilgrims began pushing each other to reach the water first. Most of the victims reportedly were women and the elderly.
“Some women and children standing in front of the queues fell down while they were going down the steps,” a local police official, Hari Krishna, was quoted as saying in the Indian Express.
The bodies were immediately brought to the government hospital in the city of Rajahmundry, where the injured were being treated.
The state’s chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, called the incident “very unfortunate and shocking,” and said local officials had not implemented effective crowd-control measures. He said families of the victims would each receive a death benefit of about $16,000.
Stampedes have become commonplace at crowded religious festivals in India. In 2013, at least 115 pilgrims, mainly women and children, died at a Hindu temple in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
Pushkaram, a festival dedicating to the worship of rivers, is celebrated at 12 waterways in India, with the location rotating each year based on signs of the zodiac.
Millions of devotees were expected to congregate in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana this year because it is an especially auspicious festival, “Maha Pushkaram,” which comes every 144 years.