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Stampede Kills 7 at Hindu Festival in Eastern India


Officials in West Bengal state say the tragedy occurred early Thursday, when hundreds of devotees scrambled to take the first boat service to Sagar Island - the venue for a Hindu religious festival known as the Gangasagar Mela.

In eastern India, seven Hindu pilgrims have been killed and 20 others injured in a stampede at a religious festival. At a separate venue in northern India, a three-month religious festival - billed as the world's largest religious gathering - has begun.

Officials in West Bengal state in the east say the tragedy occurred early Thursday, when hundreds of devotees scrambled to take the first boat service to Sagar Island - the venue for a Hindu religious festival known as the Gangasagar Mela.

They were heading to the island to take a dip in the Ganges River, considered sacred by Hindus.

West Bengal Police Inspector General Surojit Kar Purokayastha told VOA that a huge crowd had piled up after the ferry service to the island was suspended for some time, because of low tide.

"People had gathered on this side of the river. When the low tide was over and the launches started plying, there was a sudden rush of pilgrims towards the launches," he said.

Purokayastha says the stampede occurred after some pilgrims tripped and fell. He says most of the victims were women.

"Out of seven, six were old women, out of which three are more than 70," he said.

Many devotees believe that an early-morning bath is more auspicious and start lining up before sunrise to take their turn.

Hindus believe that a dip in the Ganges River washes away all sins. The river flows from the Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal in the east. And, bathing rituals are held at several points along the route of the river for Hindu pilgrims at this time of the year.

The biggest festival is the Kumbh Mela, which got underway on Thursday in the northern city, Haridwar. It is a massive religious gathering held every three years and attracts several million people during the 12 weeks that it is held.

A top official organizing the religious event, Chandra Shekhar Bhatt, says they have geared up for the massive numbers expected at this year's festival.

Bhatt says they have made elaborate arrangements and are prepared to deal with as many pilgrims as decide to come.

Despite the cold temperatures prevailing in northern India, hundreds of thousands of devotees turned up for a dip in the river on Thursday, which marks one of four particularly auspicious bathing dates in the Hindu calendar.



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