Wednesday, August 27, 2003

NASIK, India — Throngs of Hindu pilgrims waiting to bathe in a holy river in western India surged over a flimsy bamboo fence, triggering a stampede that killed at least 39 persons and injured 125.

Worshippers spilled to the ground as the fence collapsed and were trampled by the thousands of others pushing toward the Godavari River outside the town of Nasik, about 110 miles northeast of Bombay. Many of the dead were women.

“Old women were crying, ‘Take me out. Help me,’” said Lalji Mistry, a 35-year-old pilgrim who got away in time. “People, even women, were pushing forward. Due to the weight of the crowd, people started falling down.”

Wiping his dust-streaked face with a yellow shawl, Mr. Mistry shook his head in disbelief at the crowds, spread across 40 square miles, that continued to worship at the Kumbh Mela festival.

“Many don’t know what’s going on. They are still worshipping,” said Mr. Mistry, a marble craftsman from the western state of Rajasthan.

Worshippers believe they can bathe away their sins in the Godavari River, which is considered holy to many Hindus. Thousands of pilgrims pack shoulder to shoulder in the muddy, brown water.

Stampedes are not uncommon at major Hindu religious festivals, which can attract millions of worshippers. In 1954, about 800 pilgrims died during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

Most recently, 51 pilgrims died in 1999 after rope meant to channel worshippers snapped in a landslide at a Hindu shrine in southern India.

Police in Nasik estimated nearly 1.6 million people attended the festival yesterday. About 60 million people are likely to participate at various times during the festival, which started July 30 and ends Monday.

Nasik Mayor Dashrath Patil said the injured included two police officers trying to control the swelling crowd. He said 26 of the dead were women.

Pawan Modi, a businessman from the eastern state of Bihar, waited among hundreds of people outside Nasik Civil Hospital, seeking information about his sister. Inside, dozens of bodies were lined up in a row, covered by white sheets.

The stampede happened as thousands of other devotees lined up at the nearby Kalaram temple, where the Hindu god Rama is the presiding deity. After the holy dip, worshippers pay their respects to the god at the main temple and visit thousands of other smaller temples along narrow roads of the Panchwati area.

The Kumbh Mela festival is held when the sun and Jupiter enter the constellation of Leo, once every 12 years. It is based on the Hindu myth about gods and demons who fought over a pot of nectar that would give them immortality.

The main festival is held near the northern Indian city of Allahabad, while the Nasik festival is one of the “mini-Kumbhs” held more often.

It has been a difficult week for the people of Maharashtra state. On Monday, a pair of car bombs exploded in Bombay, the state capital, killing 51 persons. Authorities blamed Muslim militants for the attack.

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