An accident that crushed several people inside a Hindu temple grew into a bigger tragedy Tuesday when angry pilgrims outside learned of the deaths and set fire to shops along a crowded walkway, triggering a stampede that killed more than 200 people, police said.
An estimated 300,000 people had gathered for a festival in and around the hilltop Mandra Devi temple in western India near the small town of Wai, about 150 miles south of Bombay.
Police chief Chandrakant Kumbhar said the incident began when the temple floor became slippery from a ceremony that involved breaking coconuts in front of a deity. Some pilgrims slipped and were trampled to death by others propelled forward by the mass of people behind them trying to get into the temple to make offerings.
"A couple of devotees slipped and fell on the floor. A mob from behind walked over them," Kumbhar said. "When their relatives, who were still climbing the stairs, heard the news, they became angry and set fire to some shops."
The fires were set along a packed, narrow walkway lined with tea stalls and shops leading up a hill to the temple. They set off what witnesses said was a stampede of screaming crowds fleeing in horror.
"People were running down the hill — it was madness," said Vijay Wankhede, who has a small shop near the temple, squinting and coughing as smoke spewed from the gutted shell of his home and shop.
The death toll was at least 222 people as of Tuesday evening, most of them women and children. More than 80 people were wounded.
The pilgrims had come to the temple for a seasonal Hindu festival that coincides with a full moon, which fell on Tuesday this year.
Late Tuesday night, police and firefighters loaded bodies onto buses while sobbing relatives carried the crushed remains of their family members down the narrow hill path.
Broken coconuts, torn shirts and shattered bangles lay on a slippery, wet floor outside the temple. Hundreds of stainless steel plates, traditionally used to make offerings of sweets and flowers to the gods, were strewn across the floor streaked red with vermilion powder used in the offerings.
The 2-foot-high idol of the goddess Mandra Devi inside the temple was shrouded in smoke and the iron gates of the temple were shut after police removed the bodies from the complex.
The fire spread to other parts of the temple grounds, and some structures were still in flames Tuesday night, although the main temple complex was safe, Kumbhar said. Firefighters were trying to douse the flames and all the pilgrims had been evacuated, he added.
The horrors lasted after the stampede ended.
"There was no place to keep the bodies," said Sanjay Mete, who sells flowers and offerings near the temple. "There were so many bodies that we stacked one body on top of another."
Mete was one of several volunteers who helped police put bodies into buses to be ferried to a town below. Using loudspeakers, police asked people to identify their relatives, and requested that they carry the bodies down the hill themselves.
Some blamed organizers for not preparing properly for the enormous crowds that show up every year for the pilgrimage.
Stampedes are not uncommon at major Hindu religious festivals, which can attract millions of worshippers. Authorities are often unable to cope with the huge crowds.
In August, at least 39 Hindus were killed when pilgrims stampeded on the banks of a holy river in the town of Nasik, 110 miles northeast of Bombay.
Fifty-one pilgrims died in 1999 after a rope meant to channel worshippers snapped in a landslide at a Hindu shrine in southern India, while 50 people were killed in 1986 in a stampede in the northern town of Haridwar.
In the worst accident, about 800 pilgrims died during a Hindu festival in 1954 in the northern city of Allahabad.