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Dozens killed in stampede near Indian shrine

An out of control vehicle spurs a panic on a road leading to a major Hindu festival in the south of the country. At least 60 are dead and 100 injured in the remote area.

January 15, 2011|By Mark Magnier and Anshul Rana, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Delhi — An out of control vehicle on a road used by worshipers attending a major Hindu festival caused a stampede late Friday, leaving at least 60 people dead and 100 injured near the Sabarimala shrine in southern India.

Authorities said they feared the death toll could increase substantially given the difficulty of getting emergency assistance into the remote area and limited communication.

"It's very difficult for anyone to reach the spot and carry on rescue operations," said Jacob Punnoose, the senior police official in Kerala, the southern Indian state where the tragedy occurred. "Even the rescuers risk falling down."

Huge crowds had gathered Friday for a holiday known as Makara Jyothi, the culmination for devout Hindus of a 45-day period of fasting and sacrifice, to view a fire — considered a holy light — at the hilltop Sabarimala shrine. An estimated 50 million people each year visit the temple devoted to the Hindu deity Ayyappan.

The accident reportedly occurred about 8:15 p.m. at a hill in the remote area about nine miles from Sabarimala called Uppupara, where spectators had gathered to see the sacred fire.

A jeep stalled on a road leading down from this hill, Punnoose said, and several people tried to jumpstart the engine. In the process, the vehicle went out of control, crashing into people on the dirt track. The ensuing panic led to the injuries and deaths.

Televised images showed unconscious and barely conscious people, many with their clothes ripped off, being unloaded from a flatbed truck at a nearby hospital.

The accident in a wooded area that doubles as a tiger reserve was not the first such deadly incident, and experts and news media had pressed authorities repeatedly to upgrade facilities and improve crowd control. One person died early this month in a small stampede near the temple and 53 people were killed there in January 1999 when a hill collapsed.

"Vehicle accidents happen every single year during Sabarimala season," someone identified as Sidin wrote on Twitter. "Nobody cares, temple revenues are safe."

During the period leading to the holiday, devotees are supposed to abstain from sex, eat only vegetables prepared under exacting conditions and avoid verbal invective. It also is customary for them to take baths and visit the temple each morning before they eat, to shun footwear and dress in black or saffron clothes. The visit to Sabarimala shrine marks the end of this penance period.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Rana is a special correspondent.

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