Several dead in stampede at Hindu religious shrine in Kashmir

Mata Vaishno Devi is one of the most revered Hindu shrines in northern India, with tens of thousands visiting to offer prayers every day.

Health workers carry a coffin of a victim, who died in a stampede at the Mata Vaishnav Devi shrine, at a hospital in Katra, India-administered Kashmir [Channi Anand/AP]

At least 12 people have died and 13 injured in a stampede at a religious shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The disaster happened around 3am (21:30 GMT) while it was still dark on the route to the Vaishno Devi shrine, one of the country’s most revered Hindu sites.

“At least 12 people lost their lives and 13 are injured,” a government official said.

“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.”

Hindu devotees protest against the authorities following the fatal crowd surge at Mata Vaishnav Devi shrine, in Katra, India-administered Kashmir [Channi Anand/AP]

Other news reports said that as many 20 people have been injured. Images aired by the television station also showed several ambulances rushing to the site of the incident.

According to reports, the stampede was triggered by a heavy rush of people coming to pay their respect at the shrine to mark the beginning of the New Year.

“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,” said Mahesh, who gave only one name.

“I saw people moving over the bodies. It was a horrifying sight, but I managed to help in rescuing some injured people,” he said.

“People fell over each other… It was difficult to figure out whose leg or arms were tangled with whose,” witness Ravinder told AFP by phone from the scene.

“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 memory of what I saw.”

The Mata Vaishno Devi is one of the most revered Hindu shrines in northern India, with tens of thousands visiting to offer prayers every day.

Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi expressed his condolences in a message on Twitter.

“Extremely saddened by the loss of lives due to a stampede,” Modi wrote.

In a statement posted on social media, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said he was “very distressed to know that an unfortunate stampede claimed lives of devotees at Mata Vaishno Devi”.

“My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. I wish speedy recovery to those injured,” he added.

The office of the Lt Governor of Jammu and Kashmir said that a “high level inquiry” has been ordered” to look into the incident.

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

In October 2016, at least 24 people were killed and dozens injured in a stampede at a Hindu religious ceremony on the outskirts of Varanasi, a city in Uttar Pradesh state known for its temples.

In October 2013, a stampede in Madhya Pradesh state in central India killed more than 110 people, mostly women and children.

Two stampedes in as many months in India in 2008 left more than 370 Hindus dead. Others in Kerala in 2011 and in Madhya Pradesh two years later each killed more than 100.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies