The famous Kedarnath shrine was virtually submerged in mud and slush where 50 people died in flash floods that claimed over 130 lives in Uttarkhand and Himachal Pradesh and left over 70,000 pilgrims for Himalayan shrines stranded.
The holy town of Kedarnath, standing at a height of 11,760 feet and surrounded by majestic snow-capped peaks, was a picture of devastation on Tuesday after the flooded Mandakini river wreaked havoc on it. Officials said many people were missing but could not give an exact number.
The death toll may rise significantly once water recedes and relief teams are able to access the affected areas.The shrine of Shiva, visited by Hindu pilgrims from across the world, however, was only partly damaged amid the death and destruction flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides caused in various parts of Uttarakhand for the third consecutive day on Tuesday.
Local residents of Kedarnath said 17 people died in a stampede inside the shrine as panic-stricken people rushed to escape nature's fury.
While officials put the number of deaths across the state over the past 24 hours at 54 - 31 deaths being reported on Tuesday.
The major cause of devastation of Kedarnath town was the breaking of the Kedar Dome, a glacier-like body, that caused a rupture of the Charbari lake reservoir less than 6km from the shrine.
Locals said a huge rock as high as the temple broke away from the Kedar Dome and got stuck some distance behind the shrine.
"This redirected the floodwater and caused it to flow more vigorously towards the temple, damaging one side of it," said local shopkeeper Kunwar Singh Shah.
The shrine, one of the four holy dhams, in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand bore the brunt of torrential rains. About 500 people, including several pilgrims, are said to be missing in the area.
Kukhimath Sub Divisional Magistrate Rakesh Tewari told reporters after his return from Kedarnarth that 50 bodies are lying in areas adjacent to the shine.
"We are right now concentrating on rescuing those who are alive," he said.
River water levels are continuing to rise across the state, clogging roads and leaving hundreds of pilgrims stranded on their way to visit shrines, officials said.
Television footage showed bridges, houses and other buildings crashing down and being washed away by the swirling waters. A swollen river is seen engulfing a giant statue of Lord Shiva in the tourist city of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand.
Fresh rains in Uttarakhand were hampering rescue efforts, with teams from the national disaster management authority camping in the popular pilgrimage town of Haridwar awaiting air lift to the worst-affected districts, officials said.
The state government was also readying food parcels and drinking water to be dropped by helicopters to remote villages cut-off by the torrential rains.
The Ram Bada area, a busy spot near the temple, has been completely submerged and was not visible from rescue choppers.
Army Central Command officials said that nearly 6,000 to 8,000 people are stranded in Kedarnath, 2,500 in Hemkund Sahib and around 8,000 in Badrinath.
Flash floods, cloudbursts and landslips have so far claimed 131 lives in northern India. Thousands have been displaced in Uttar Pradesh where several rivers are in spate.
The death toll in Uttarakhand has reached 102. Rudraprayag district was the worst hit with 20 people dead and 73 buildings, including 40 hotels, along the banks of the Alaknanda swept away in the swirling waters of the river.
A total of 71,440 pilgrims bound for the Himalayan shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri are stranded in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts of Uttarakhand with the famous char dham yatra having been suspended due to massive landslides and damage to the road network.
(With HT, AFP and PTI inputs)