27 killed and dozens injured in stampede during festival in India
At least 27 pilgrims have died in a stampede during a Hindu religious festival on the banks of a holy river in southern India.
The Hindu pilgrims had gathered to take a dip in the Godavari river at the start of the Maha Pushkaralu festival.
The stampede was triggered by some pilgrims who were trying to retrieve their shoes, which had fallen off in the rush to the river bank, police said.
"The incident happened as the first set of worshippers were coming out of the river after taking a dip and then got in the way of others who wanted to be in the water at an auspicious time," said a senior police official.
It happened in Andhra Pradesh state as tens of thousands of people pushed forward to bathe in the Godavari River on the first day of the Pushkaralu festival, said Arun Kumar, a state administrator.
Another 34 people were injured and taken to hospital.
Nearly 24 million people are expected to take part in the 12-day festival, which encourages pilgrims to bath in the Godavari river to rid themselves of their sins.
V Satyanarayana, a pilgrim who was at the site, said the stampede lasted nearly 20 minutes.
"It was a frightening situation, with women and children crying for help," he said. "The policemen on duty were helpless and it took more than an hour to bring the situation under control."
Some pilgrims said ambulances took time to reach the site because the roads were overcrowded with people.
Officials said a small place like Rajahmundry could not cope with the rush of hundreds of thousands of people, and that the situation became almost unmanageable.
Thousands of pilgrims, riding in buses, trains and other vehicles, started reaching the pilgrimage centre two days ahead of the start of the festival.
"There is a false belief that taking a holy dip in the river on the first day of the festival will be more auspicious," said Swamy Swaroopanand, a Hindu holy man. "It's the same as taking dip on any other day."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief over the tragedy, tweeting that he was "deeply pained" by it.
Rajahmundry is 280 miles (450km) east of Hyderabad, the joint capital of Andhra Pradesh and newly created Telangana state.
Deadly stampedes are fairly common during Indian religious festivals, where large crowds gather in small areas with few safety or crowd control measures.
In October 2013, a stampede in Madhya Pradesh state in central India killed more than 110 people, mostly women and children.