Five crushed to death in India holy river stampede

India's Kumbh Mela pilgrimage officially starts
India's Kumbh Mela pilgrimage officially starts

Godavari (India) (AFP) - A stampede on the banks of a holy river killed at least five female pilgrims Tuesday in southern India at the start of a religious festival season, officials said.

The stampede broke out at around 8:00 am (0230 GMT) in Rajahmundry, on the border of the twin states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, about two hours after the start of the Maha Pushkaralu festival which sees thousands of people bathe in the waters of the Godavari river.

"We can confirm five deaths so far. Another five or six people are still undergoing treatment," A. Srinivasan Rao, a deputy superintendent of police in Andhra Pradesh, told AFP.

"The incident happened as the first set of worshippers were coming out of the river after taking a dip and then got in the way of others who wanted to be in the water at an auspicious time," Rao said.

The dead include four women and a fifteen-year old girl, police added.

A spokesman for Andhra Pradesh's Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu said that the situation had been brought under control and an investigation into the cause of the tragedy opened.

"The initial reports indicate that the reason for this stampede was a disproportionate number of people rushing to one of the six ghats (steps leading to the river)," the spokesman Parkala Prabhakar told AFP.

In a statement posted on his Twitter account, Prime Minster Narendra Modi said he was "deeply pained at the loss of lives due to stampede at Rajahmundry" and offered condolences to the families of victims as well as prayers for survivors.

The start of the Maha Pushkaralu festival coincides with the official beginning of the much larger Kumbh Mela festival, which is being held at Nashik in the western state of Maharashtra.

Millions of pilgrims are expected to travel to Nashik over the next two months, the site of a stampede which 39 people when the Kumbh was last held there 12 years ago.

Only a few hundred people attended a flag-raising ceremony on Tuesday which marked the official opening of the 2015 festival and mass crowds are not expected to gather until the first main bathing day on August 29.

The dates for the Kumbh Mela and the Pushkaralu festivals are set by religious leaders to coincide with the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar.