By Ebi Kesiena
At least 12 people died and 13 were injured in a stampede at a religious shrine in India in the early hours of Saturday, as thousands of pilgrims massed to offer prayers, officials said.
The disaster happened around 3:00 am (2130 GMT) while it was still dark on the route to the Vaishno Devi shrine in the Indian-administered Kashmir, one of the country’s most revered Hindu sites.
An eye witness Ravinder, who gave only one name, told AFP by phone from the scene.
“People fell over each other… It was difficult to figure out whose leg or arms were tangled with whose.
“I helped pick up eight bodies by the time ambulances arrived after about half an hour. I feel lucky to be alive but am still shaking with the memory of what I saw,” he said.
One official said that there was a rush to offer special prayers for the New Year, but this was not confirmed by others.
Millions of shrines dot Hindu-majority India’s cities, towns and villages as well as remote sites in the Himalayas or in jungles in the south.
Some are hugely important pilgrimage sites and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has invested heavily in improving infrastructure to ease access.
Before the pandemic, every day about 100,000 devotees would trek up a steep winding track to the narrow cave containing the shrine to Vaishno Devi.
Authorities had capped the daily number to 25,000 but witnesses and press reports said that this may have been exceeded several times over.