The deaths of 91 pilgrims in a stampede outside a temple cast a long shadow over celebrations on Monday marking the end of one of the holiest festivals in the Hindu calendar.
Ten more people were fighting for their lives after the tragedy on a bridge outside the temple in the central state of Madhya Pradesh which was also the scene of a deadly stampede in 2006.
“The death toll has risen to 91 and 10 others are in a critical condition,” Deputy Police Inspector D.K. Arya told AFP late Sunday.
Police said many of those killed in the stampede on Sunday had died after leaping off the bridge in a bid to escape the panic sparked by fears that the structure was about to collapse.
Witnesses said the situation was then exacerbated by police wading into the crowds with baton sticks, a charge denied by police.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led the condolences for the victims, which reports said included 31 women and 17 children.
“On this day of festivities, our hearts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” Singh said in a statement.
Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple in Datia district, which is about 350 kilometres (220 miles) north of the state capital Bhopal, when the stampede took place.
Large crowds began converging on the site from early morning, according to witnesses, on the penultimate day of the Navaratri festival.
The nine-day festival is dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga, which draws millions of worshippers to temples, especially in northern and central India.
Monday marks the official end of the festival when devotees are expected to immerse idols in rivers as a final offering to the goddess.
The disaster in Datia comes only seven years after another stampede outside the same temple when more than 50 people were crushed to death while crossing the river, after which authorities built the bridge.
“Datia cops learnt no lessons from 2006 stampede”, read a headline in The Hindustan Times, saying the tragedy “underlines the sheer ineptitude of the authorities responsible for the safety and security” of devotees.
India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at least 36 people trampled to death in February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.
Some 102 Hindu devotees were killed in a stampede in January 2011 in the state of Kerala, while 224 pilgrims died in September 2008 as thousands of worshippers rushed to reach a 15th-century hill-top temple in Jodhpur.
Police and state government officials said the stampede at the Ratangarh temple on Sunday was triggered by rumours the bridge might collapse after being struck by a heavy vehicle around lunchtime.
“There were rumours that the bridge could collapse after the tractor hit it,” said Arya. “Many people are feared to have fallen into the river.”
Other police sources said that some 20,000 people were on the bridge over the River Sindh when the stampede broke out.
Witnesses said the situation was exacerbated by police charging at the crowds with heavy wooden sticks known as lathis.
“Police lathi-charge during the panic run worsened the situation, forcing many to jump off the bridge,” 28-year-old Manoj Sharma, who lives in the nearby village of Bhander, told The Times of India’s website.
However Arya insisted “there was no baton-charge” by the police.
Uma Shankar Gupta, the state’s home minister, said authorities had not yet determined why the stampede had broken out, but downplayed suggestions that security to deal with the crowds was inadequate.
“There were safety measures in place, this is an annual event,” he told reporters.
“We don’t yet have information on how this happened, as our focus is on the rescue effort.”
Ashok Argal, a federal lawmaker from the region, placed the blame on crowds trying to rush across the bridge.
“It is wrong to say there were any administrative lapses. The administration had taken steps and made foolproof arrangements to avoid any untoward incident,” he told Agence France-Presse.
“Sometimes there is little cooperation from people and people are always in a hurry, because of which this unfortunate incident occurred.”
The state’s chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced payouts of 150,000 rupees ($2,500) to the families of those killed, and 50,000 rupees to the injured.