Last Sunday, Tharmpal Singh Rana, who owns a shop on the path leading to and from the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh's Bilaspur district, was hopeful of good business. It was the second day of the Navratra, the auspicious nine-day festival, and there had been an increase in the flow of pilgrims. At around 11 am, he saw a group of pilgrims carrying a dead body. Rana, who had set up his shop five years ago, didn't like the look of it.
Ramesh Chand, who owns the shop next to Rana, has been around for a decade more than any other shopkeeper. "I didn't think much of it till about the fifth body. These things happen every year. At least four to five people die every year. This is a regular sight. But that day, the bodies just didn't stop coming," Chand said.
The two got talking and decided to call a shopkeeper friend further up, near the temple. "When I called my friend there, he said there had been a stampede on the top and by the looks of it, he thought at least 500 people had died," Rana said.
The two then shut shop and spread the word, asking all the shopkeepers to down their shutters and rush uphill with them. Rana went up first and others followed him. "I alone would have carried some 20 bodies down to the bus stand, from where they were taken to the hospital in Anandpur Sahib, which is at the foothills," Rana said. Each shopkeeper said he had lifted at least 10 dead bodies and helped relatives carry them downhill.
And each of them said there was not a single policeman or anyone from the administration in sight.
"When I reached there, the sight I saw would be difficult to stomach even for the bravest heart. The first thing I saw was a heap of dead bodies. Not like anybody had piled them, but as though that is how they were when they died. There were seven bodies on top of each other. Imagine how the melee would have been," Chand said, adding that baring four youngsters from the Home Guard, there was no one in uniform there.
Image: The sanctum sanctorum housing the goddess Naina Devi. Pilgrims who brave the elements get a two-second darshan before waiting cops shove them out of the sanctum sanctorum.
Officials estimate that more than 150 people step into the sanctorum in a minute and the temple which is open to the public for 22 hours of the day takes in more than 20,000 pilgrims every day during the nine-day Navratra festival.
Text & Photographs: Krishnakumar P
Also read: Nainadevi: Faith moves mountains