At least 12 killed in stampede at Vaishno Devi shrine in Indian Kashmir

Witnesses say daily limit of 25,000 worshippers was exceeded and that large groups entered the hilltop site without permission

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At least 12 people died and 13 were injured in a stampede at a religious shrine in India early on Saturday as pilgrims gathered to offer New Year prayers.

Officials said the incident happened at the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir. It is one of the most revered Hindu sites in northern India.

Before the pandemic, about 100,000 devotees would visit the site every day, but the authorities have capped the daily number at 25,000.

"At least 12 people lost their lives and 13 are injured," a senior government official told AFP.

"The toll could be higher as the route to the hilltop shrine was packed with devotees trying to do the customary New Year visit and prayers."

Another official confirmed the death toll, saying the stampede occurred at about 2.45am local time.

"A high-level inquiry has been ordered by the government into the stampede incident at the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi shrine," he said.

Mahesh, a devotee who gave only one name, said the stampede occurred near one of the gates where pilgrims enter and exit the route to the shrine.

“Something happened near one of the gates and I found myself under a crush of people. I suffocated and fell but somehow managed to stand up,” he told Associated Press. “I saw people moving over the bodies. It was a horrifying sight, but I managed to help in rescuing some injured people.”

Before the pandemic, thousands of devotees a day would trek up a steep winding track to the narrow cave containing the shrine to Vaishno Devi.

Despite a cap on daily visitor numbers, witnesses and press reports said that this may have been exceeded several times over.

"There were at least 100,000 people there. No one was checking registration slips of the devotees," said Ravinder, a pilgrim who gave only one name.

"I have been there many times but never seen such a rush of people," he said.

"It was only when some of us managed to lift a dead body up with our hands that people could see [what was happening] and made space for moving the bodies out."

Officials sought to blame an alleged altercation between two groups of youths and a rush of people for New Year's Day.

"Police and officials ... were quick to respond [after the altercation], and the order within the crowd was immediately restored," local police chief Dilbag Singh told the Press Trust of India news agency.

"But by that time, the damage had been done," he said.

Priyansh, another pilgrim, said he travelled from New Delhi with 10 friends to visit the shrine and that two of them died in the incident.

“I have never seen anything like this,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his condolences and said he was in touch with local officials.

"Condolences to the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon," he said on Twitter.

Other senior officials, including India's president, offered their condolences, and the country's interior minister called the news "heart-wrenching".

Government minister Jitendra Singh said he was on his way to the site to assess the situation.

Rescue operations started immediately and the injured, some of whom were reported to be in a serious condition, were taken to hospital.

The pilgrimage resumed after nearly four hours, officials said.

The shrine, which is open 24 hours a day, is in the Katra hills, about 30 kilometres from the city of Jammu.

People travel to the nearby town of Katra and then trek for about 15 kilometres on foot or by pony along a winding track lined with stalls as well as monkeys. There is also a helicopter service.

Once they have reached the cave entrance they often have to wait for hours.

Deadly stampedes are fairly common during Indian religious festivals, when large crowds, sometimes in the millions, gather in small areas with few safety or crowd control measures.

In 2013, pilgrims visiting a temple for a popular Hindu festival in India’s central Madhya Pradesh state stampeded amid fears that a bridge would collapse, and at least 115 people were crushed to death or died in the river below.

More than 100 Hindus died in 2011 in a stampede at a religious festival in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Updated: January 01, 2022, 11:44 AM