(dpa) - At least 145 Hindu worshippers were killed and 48 injured in a stampede at a shrine in India's northern state of Himachal Pradesh on Sunday, officials said.
The stampede occurred at the Naina Devi temple dedicated to the goddess Durga, located atop a hill in Bilaspur district, some 320 kilometres north of the national capital New Delhi.
"Our teams confirm that 145 people are dead in the stampede," senior police official RN Dhoke told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa by telephone.
"The bodies of the victims were brought to the Civil Hospital in Anandpur Sahib in neighbouring Punjab state".
Dhoke did not expect the death toll to rise.
Himachal Additional Director General of Police Daljit Singh Manhas earlier said the victims included 40 children and 45 women.
"The death toll could go up as a few more wounded could have succumbed to injuries on the way to local hospitals," Manhas said.
Authorities said rumours of a landslide and boulders rolling down the hill caused the stampede.
"The rumours created a commotion and led to the stampede as devotees on the way to the temple tried to push their way, causing a collapse of the fencing," state principal secretary PC Kapoor said.
"This panic caused a rush between crowds returning from the temple and those going up to the shrine. People started running here and there."
He said the death toll was high because panic-stricken people ran in the narrow and congested stairway, trampling children, women, the old and the infirm.
Tens of thousands of people have been gathering at the temple for the 10-day Sharavan Ashtami fair that began Saturday, which is considered auspicious by the Hindus.
As many as 25,000 people may have been at the temple among the most popular shrines in north India for the festivities, local media said.
Some survivors recounted the horror they witnessed on the hill slopes.
"Devotees returning from the temple ran into pilgrims coming up. Then people tried to outpace each other to find an escape and tried to jump over the fences," a witness told news channels.
"Coming under immense human pressure the fences gave way and people fell down the slope. Several women and children, who could not jump the railings and remained on the path, were trampled upon," he said.
The path leading to the temple wore a tragic look as the bodies of children, women and men lay in slush, some of them clutching offerings for the deity.
Some sweaters and shawls, carried by the pilgrims, and their other belongings lay strewn on the path leading to and out of the temple.
Crying and distraught people frantically searched the pile of bodies to locate their missing relatives.
Heavy rains and lack of coordination amongst the agencies had hampered rescue operations and evacuation of the injured, officials said.
Meanwhile, Himachal Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal ordered an inquiry into whether adequate safety provisions were in place at the temple.
He also offered compensation to those injured in the stampede and to the families of those killed.
But locals said that lack of security arrangements around the temple led to the temple.
"The administration did not deploy sufficient police force even as the devotees numberd in thousands," Likhi Ram told the IANS. Others said that the administration were not prepared for the heavy rush.
Temple stampedes are not uncommon in India, where huge crowds gather to pray on auspicious days at complexes where the approach roads and entrances are usually narrow.
There have been at least three fatal stampedes in the country so far during 2008, claiming over 21 lives in Hindu temples in the southern, central and eastern states.