As a pall of gloom hung over the Bhakti Dham ashram in Uttar Pradesh a day after a stampede killed 63 women and children, an eyewitness said on Friday that an electrocution rumour sparked off panic at the gate of the popular spiritual centre.
Hridesh Tiwari, who runs a tea stall nearby, said the initial panic at the ashram gate was due to a rumour that a wire hanging nearby was "live" and had electrocuted someone.
"Once people heard that, they wanted to get away. Since there was no scope for turning back towards the road, everyone tried to rush forward, trampling one after the other," Tiwari told IANS.
The ashram in this small town of Pratapgarh district run by popular godman Kripaluji Maharaj, which usually bustles with activity in the morning, wore an eerie look, with more cops than anybody else in and around the place.
The gate of the ashram that came crashing down on Thursday under the pressure of the stampeding crowd was still lying on the ground. The open area around was still strewn with broken bangles, shoes, slippers, caps and shreds of the clothes worn by the victims who had converged to attend the bhandara (religious feast) organised by the godman.
The occasion, held annually to mark the death anniversary of his wife, had drawn thousands of devotees - largely very poor people - particularly in view of the announcement that along with food, the visitors would also be given some cash and two utensils.
The staff of the sprawling six-acre ashram remained silent and sullen, while they attended to their chores.
A number of injured are being treated in a hospital run by the ashram in the campus. Its doors were shut not only to the media but also even to the kin of the victims. "We have instructions from the top not to allow anyone inside the hospital", said a private security guard at the door.
One of the ashram caretakers Sukh Din Deo maintained that the hospital had been cordoned off in the larger interest of the victims.
"On a normal morning, we would have had at least 100-200 devotees by now, but today there is not a single visitor," he lamented.
The road in front of the ashram remained closed to traffic. Large contingents of policemen including armed cops were stationed all over the area, effectively converting the place into a police camp.
Mangarh, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is 180 km from state capital Lucknow.