Fatal stampede at Hindu festival

AT least five people were killed in a stampede yesterday as ten million Hindu pilgrims led by hundreds of ash-covered, naked holy men streamed into the sacred waters of the river Ganges yesterday at the world’s biggest religious festival.

The date, chosen by astrologers, was the “main royal bathing day” of the Kumbh Mela, a 104-day event held in India every three years that is a riot of colour and noise as well as a gigantic spectacle of religious piety.

Devotees assembled along a 15-kilometre stretch of the Ganges for a dip in the river that they believe cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of life and rebirth.

The highest-ranking holy men, the naked “naga sadhus”, consider themselves spiritual guardians of the Hindu faith and fiercely defend their right to bathe at the most auspicious moment.

But in one reported accident, five pilgrims were killed after a car carrying naga sadhus ploughed into a group of people, the Press Trust of India news agency said, citing police.

Other media reports said seven people had died in the incident after the car crash caused a stampede.

Dozens of one-way footbridges criss-cross the Ganges around Haridwar and a massive police presence of 16,000 personnel was on hand to prevent crowd congestion that has triggered deadly stampedes in the past.

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