36 killed as stampede mars India's Kumbh festival

At least 36 people died in a terrifying stampede as pilgrims headed home from India's Kumbh Mela religious festival, which drew a record 30 million people to the banks of the Ganges.

Dozens more were injured in the crush on Sunday evening at a railway station, marking a tragic end to the most auspicious day of the 55-day Hindu festival in northern India, the world's largest gathering of humanity.

Local officials said the railings on a bridge at the station had given way under the pressure of the mass of people, while witnesses said that police had baton-charged the crowd, triggering panic.

Injured people were stretchered away on ambulances from Allahabad station, but relatives said emergency services took hours to reach the scene. At least 10 corpses wrapped in white sheets could be seen on a platform several hours later.

"My sister is lying here unattended to for the last two hours. Why is no-one coming?" a woman from the desperately poor state of Bihar told the NDTV channel from the platform, as her sister lay immobile with eyes half-shut next to her.

Amit Malviya, a spokesman for the northern and central railway, told AFP on Monday that 20 bodies had been identified and authorities were waiting for relatives to come forward to claim another 16.

Of the identified dead, 14 were female and six were men, with the youngest victim an eight-year-old girl and the oldest a 75-year-old man, he said.

Hindus believe a dip in the sacred waters of the river Ganges cleanses them of their sins. This year's Mela is enormous even by previous standards, with astrologers saying a planetary alignment seen once every 147 years made it particularly auspicious for some pilgrims.

Police had been stretched in controlling the vast crowds, top local official Devesh Chaturvedi admitted earlier Sunday as the ongoing festival reached its peak, with one person dying for unknown reasons.

"By afternoon over two crore (20 million) people had taken the holy dip and by evening the numbers crossed three crore (30 million)," he told a news conference.

After the stampede, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement saying that he was "deeply shocked to learn of the unfortunate incident" while Railways Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal headed to Allahabad to investigate.

"People were taking rest on these railings and the railings could not take the load. The joints broke," a spokesman for the local Uttar Pradesh state, Ashok Sharma, told AFP.

Bansal denied that this had been the cause, PTI reported, saying that overcrowding on the platforms may have led to the stampede. But relatives of the victims blamed police for causing a panic which led to the accident.

The Kumbh Mela, which began last month and ends in March, takes place every 12 years in the northern city of Allahabad. Smaller, similar events are held every three years in other locations around India.

In 2003, 45 people died in a stampede during the festival in the western Indian town of Nasik.

Crushes are a constant menace at religious events in India, where policing and crowd control are often inadequate.

The worst recent incident was in October 2008 when around 220 people died near a temple inside a famous fort in the northern city of Jodhpur.

At the Kumbh Mela on Sunday, 30,000 volunteers and 7,000 police were on duty, urging pilgrims to take one short bath and then leave the waters to make space for the flow of humanity which stretched for kilometres (miles).

The event has its origins in Hindu mythology, which describes how a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell on the four places that host the festival -- Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.

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