India pilgrimage disaster recalls other mass-casualty religious events


An express train traveling through the eastern Bihar State of India plowed through a group of pilgrims Monday on their way to a holy site, killing dozens and injuring many more. Officials said the driver had been given clearance to pass through the remote station, but hundreds of people were crossing the tracks on a pilgrimage to a nearby temple to offer holy water to the Hindu god Shiva. Indian officials are still arguing over whether the government should be held responsible for the accident, with the chief minister of the state calling the incident “the rarest of rare tragedies.”

Though this event may seem rare, the history of pilgrimage is marked by tragedy. Many disasters have occurred during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites that each Muslim is required to make at least once in their lifetime, as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. As the world’s population grows, so does the number of pilgrims trying to reach the same holy sites year after year. Many pilgrims are aware of the possibility for disaster and yet embark on the pilgrimages anyway, believing the benefits of the journey to outweigh the dangers.

Below are some of the more notable pilgrimage disasters from recent history:

June 2013 – Flash floods in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand killed at least 1,000 people and stranded at least 40,000 others. Most of the affected were on a pilgrimage called Char Dham Yatra, which takes Hindus to four of the holiest sites in Uttarakhand between May and November. The Indian military has been called on to aid in the massive rescue operation, but the mountainous valley terrain is hindering efforts to reach the thousands who are still missing. Google created a “person finder” app to help people locate each other amidst the chaos. 

February 2013 – At least 30 people were killed in a stampede in India as pilgrims rushed to board trains arriving at platforms. The pilgrims were participating in the Hindu religious festival Kumbh Mela, which occurs every 12 years. Millions of pilgrims gather by the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and each event outranks the last as the largest gathering in human history. With a growing religious population in India and other nations, there are fears that mass pilgrimages will only continue to be fraught with disaster if infrastructure cannot meet the demands of population growth.

January 2006 – At least 345 pilgrims died in a human stampede in Saudia Arabia, during the hajj. One portion of the holy Muslim practice consists of throwing stones at a wall in the city of Mina. This event has been accompanied by a large death toll more than once, as pilgrims push forward through crowds to ensure their stone hits the wall. 

April 1997 — At least 340 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 more injured when fires swept through the tent city at Mina where thousands of pilgrims stay during the hajj. 

July 1990 — In the most deadly hajj disaster of recent times, 1,426 pilgrims traveling through overcrowded tunnels leading to worship sites were killed in a massive stampede in Mecca. Most of the pilgrims were Malaysian, Indonesian and Pakistani.

July 1987 — Security forces in Mecca clashed with mostly Iranian pilgrims protesting U.S. policies in an illegal demonstration, resulting in the deaths of 402 people, with 649 more wounded. 

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