Tamil Nadu govt officials discount collision theory

Officials from Theni, the nearest district town in Tamil Nadu, told Deccan Herald over the phone that an elephantine chain tied to two poles on either side of a narrow 15-foot jungle track, to keep away pilgrims from a small parking area for jeeps and mini vans, triggered the mass stampede. “It appears nothing but stampede,” they said.

At least three lakh pilgrims  thronged the spot on Friday evening to witness the “Makara Jyothi,” sources said. The Kumuli-Pullimedu jungle track was thrown open by temple authorities to facilitate pilgrims to reach Sabarimala through a shortcut.

Though this route reduces the pilgrims’ distance by 100 km, the narrow pathway is abutted by the Periyar Tiger reserve on the one side and a deep gorge on the other, officials pointed out. The vantage point at that place is at an elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level and the Lord Ayappa shrine just five km down that slope.

This enables devotees to witness the effulgent light from Pulmedu without going to the shrine. Perhaps, not anticipating a huge rush of devotees at Pulmedu point this year, “there were only six policemen on duty there on the fateful day,” a senior official said.
When the thrusting crowd started moving to get back to their vehicles, the jumbo chain fencing the track was still fastened. The tragedy could have been averted if the chain, usually used to tie elephants, across the pathway was removed, sources said.

The “Makara Jyothi” appearance, which usually ascends into view around 6:45 pm, was delayed by 15 minutes this time. Devotees were apparently in a hurry to get back, but were held back by the huge chain leading to a stampede as one group after another surged forward, sources said.  “One crashed on the other in an endless death row as it were, in a dark and deep forest area surrounded by a gorge,” an official at nearby Vandiperiyar Police station said.

The Tamil Nadu government moved some 37 ambulances to the accident spot, sources said. Theni district Collector Muthuveeran is camping at the spot overseeing relief operations. Some survivors were quoted in local television channels saying they took this short-cut for want of adequate facilities for pilgrims at the “sannidhanam.”

Tamil Nadu arranged for free transportation of the bodies and also paid Rs 5,000 on the spot to the next of kin of the dead for meeting immediate funeral expenses.

 Expressing deep shock and pain at the tragedy in Chennai, Chief Minister M  Karunanidhi announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh each to the family of the dead and Rs 25,000 each to the injured.

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