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A judicial probe has been ordered into a stampede that killed scores of Hindu pilgrims in the southern Indian state of Kerala in, the state government says.
Jaya Kumar, home secretary for Kerala, said on Saturday that 104 people had been confirmed dead and dozens more injured, some of them seriously.
The tragedy unfolded in a remote, mountainous area of southern Kerala on Friday evening as pilgrims made their way home from an annual ceremony at the hill shrine of Sabarimala that draws up to four million people every year.
Police officials said a jeep had lost control and ploughed into a crowd of devotees packed onto a narrow road in a hilly and densely forested area 10km from the shrine.
“The accident caused a mass panic and triggered a stampede on the hillside,” Rajendra Nair, the police commissioner, said.
Search for bodies
Indian television showed pictures of the injured being passed over the heads of tightly packed crowds of pilgrims during rescue efforts that lasted through the night.
Families of the missing thronged local hospitals on Saturday, as officials attempted to identify the bodies being brought in from the site of the stampede.
Most of the victims were from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
The search for bodies and survivors had been hampered by the remote location, heavy mist and the thick forest terrain.
The annual two-month Maravilakku festival attracts millions of worshippers to the remote temple of the Hindu deity Ayyappan.
Under the customs of the pilgrimage, hundreds of thousands of men and women set off on foot in groups for the Sabarimala temple, each carrying a cloth bundle containing traditional offerings.
Many of the elderly, or those in a hurry, opt to cram into buses and jeeps to travel as close as possible to the temple. It is thought that it was one of these jeeps that prompted the initial accident.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said his thoughts are with the relatives of the victims, and announced compensation payments of Rs100,000 ($2,200) to the families of the victims.
RS Gavai, the governor of Kerala, expressed his sadness at the loss of life.
“I am deeply shocked and saddened at the tragic accident,” he said.
“I share my profound grief of the bereaved families and pray for the speedy recovery of those injured.”
Defence Minister AK Antony termed the stampede “a tragedy beyond anyone’s imagination. He said the Southern Naval Command had dispatched an emergency medical team to the accident site.
Deadly stampedes have previously occurred at temples in India, where large crowds – sometimes hundreds of thousands of people – gather in congested areas with no real safety measures.
R Prasanan, a journalist with The Week magazine, told Al Jazeera that Friday night’s stampede was an “administrative tragedy”, because there were “no arrangements by the police or temple authorities” at the spot where the accident happened.
He said the authorities had provided adequate arrangements at the main site for the pilgrimage, but had ignored a separate area where pilgrims went to get a better view of a site where they believe a miraculous apparation will appear.
He said that there will be little expectation of change, even after the investigation is carried out.
“[In India] tragedy happens and immediately after that there is an inquiry but no arrangements are made even after that.”
In March last year, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh blamed lax safety for the deaths of 63 people in a stampede outside another Hindu temple.
At least another 10 people died in a stampede at a temple in the state of Bihar in October. In 2008, more than 145 people died in a stampede at a remote Hindu temple at the foothills of the Himalayas.