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India and the temples of doom

October 6, 2008

By Neeta Lal
Asia Times
October 4, 2008

NEW DELHI - Barely two months after an horrific temple stampede
crushed 162 people to death at a famous Hindu shrine in India's
northern state of Himachal Pradesh, comes yet another temple tragedy.
This time at the 15th century Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur
Rajasthan, famously known as the "Blue City" in the tourist state of Rajasthan.

In the wee hours of Tuesday, 147 devotees were trampled to death
there by fellow pilgrims clamoring to enter the temple to mark the
start of the Hindu festival of Navratras. Disaster struck when a wall
in the labyrinthine alley that leads to the Medieval temple
collapsed, triggering panic among a 25,000-strong congregation. The
situation was aggravated by people slipping on the temple floor,
which was awash with coconut milk after thousands were smashed as
offerings to the deities. A power outage acted as a fatal last straw.

Stampedes are hardly uncommon in Indian temples, where hundreds of
thousands regularly assemble to pray during festivals and police are
often unable to control the surge of worshippers. The Jodhpur
incident is the third of its kind in India this year, coming close on
the heels of the Himachal Pradesh tragedy and another at Kota,
Rajasthan which left two dead and 250 injured when a temple staircase
collapsed.

In 2005, 340 died in a human crush at the hilltop Mandra Devi temple
in western India, where more than 300,000 had gathered for a
religious festival. In 2003 all hell broke loose at Nasik in
Maharashtra state when a tsunami of Hindu pilgrims - waiting to bathe
in a local holy river - surged over a flimsy bamboo fence triggering
a stampede that killed 39 and injured 125.

"While we are highly sensitive to the menace of terror," said Mahesh
Dhow, an erstwhile senior police officer, "avoidable disasters like
stampedes which kill more people than bomb blasts often escape our attention."

This is all the more unfortunate - even foolhardy - considering
cultural and religious pilgrimages are an integral part of Indian
life with most Indians undertaking at least one such journey during
their lifetime. These trips may even involve millions, like in the
case of the Kumbh Mela festival which is held at the confluence of
the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

Apart from the Kumbh Melas, there are major temples like Tirupati and
Guruvayoor in the south, Vaishno Devi in the north and Kamakhya in
the northeast, and lesser-known ones like Naina Devi in Himachal
Pradesh and Chamunda Devi in Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur which attract
hordes of devotees.

Major pilgrim destinations are relatively more adept at dealing with
large crowds and disaster usually strikes at smaller ones, according
to experts. In other words, larger congregations are somewhat better
managed, while smaller ones often lack simpler measures such as the
holding areas, trained marshals and public address systems needed to
manage crowds.

In most cases, crowd management measures at such gatherings are
rudimentary - or even non-existent. To top it all, police action
often exacerbates panic when things go wrong.

An official at New Delhi's famous Akshardham Temple said that temple
authorities often miss a cardinal rule of crowd control - that of
sending the worshippers to the temple in batches. "This fundamental
lack of organization or plain common sense results in massive
tragedies at pilgrimages undertaken by hundreds of thousands of
ordinary Indians every year," he said.

District administrations also usually plan to manage crowds based on
turnout estimates from previous gatherings, failing to factor in
sudden surges. It is usually this miscalculation that catches the
administration off guard and leads to stampedes.

Perhaps the Indian administration could take a leaf out of the
Chinese authorities' book. Despite the crowds which each day visit
Lhasa's Potala, the erstwhile palace of the Dalai Lama, only a set
number of visitors are allowed in each day, and to protect the
ancient wooden structure visitors are assigned to holding areas if
numbers do spill over.

In Chennai's Devikarumari Amman temple at Tiruverkadu and the Kamashi
Amman temple at Mangadu, the shrine authorities have made
arrangements to prevent a stampede. At Tiruverkadu, there are two
exit gates, apart from the main entrance, through which devotees walk
in and after entering the temple, the devotees progress towards the
sanctum sanctorum in single file and then exit through another gate.
In the event of a melee, the two exit gates on all sides can be
opened to let the crowd out.

At the Akshardham Temple there is always police outside the temple,
and during festivals additional forces and student volunteers
navigate the crowd. A medical booth is also set up outside the temple
with doctors and medical staff.

After the Jodhpur tragedy, the Rajasthan state government has
responded with the quintessential tokenism of ordering an "official
probe". But how many such probes in the past in India have yielded
anything worthwhile to prevent future tragedies? On the contrary,
even as hapless relatives wailed over the dead bodies of their near
and dear ones in Tuesday's tragedy - politicians scrambled to extract
political mileage from the incident.

The Congress-led government in New Delhi started accusing the main
opposition party - the Bharatiya Janata Party (which is currently in
power in Rajasthan led by chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia) -
of negligence. Ironically, with elections looming large on India's
political landscape, it is not grief over the loss of human lives in
Tuesday's tragedy that is on the politician's mind, but vote grabbing.

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to
many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.
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