Fire swept through a cluster of thatched-roof buildings where scores of worshipers had gathered to seek the blessing of a dead Hindu guru on Sunday, killing more than 100 people and injuring 165, officials said.
“We have recovered 120 bodies so far,” said Santosh Upadhyay, the police chief of Baripada, which is 110 miles southwest of Calcutta.
Sanjeeb Hota, home secretary of the eastern coastal state of Orissa, said that an additional 165 people were injured in the fire. More bodies were being dug up late Sunday, officials said.
Flames tore through the group of temporary structures erected for followers of Swami Nigamananda, sending panicked worshipers, many of them impoverished villagers, running for exits, Press Trust of India reported, quoting witnesses. Many of the victims may have died in the stampede, the news agency said.
The scale of the disaster overwhelmed Baripada, which has only two firetrucks, and the state government ordered doctors from larger towns to rush to the site.
More than 12,000 devotees of Swami Nigamananda, a Hindu spiritual leader, had assembled for several days of worship on the outskirts of Baripada. Swami Nigamananda has been dead for many years, but his followers, mostly in eastern India, worship his memory and continue to seek his blessing.
Organizers had built one huge hut and several other sheds of straw walls and thatched roofs to serve as meeting halls and temporary shelters, Hota said. “So it all burned really fast,” he said.
When the fire started at about 3:30 p.m., many of the devotees were napping in the living quarters to escape the afternoon heat, Hota said.
It was unclear if all the victims were in one building.
Women and children attending the convention, which began Thursday, were in 10 huts in a separate area of the camp, authorities said.
“The only good thing was that the females’ camp was not affected by the fire,” one local resident said.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, though witnesses told Press Trust of India that an electrical short circuit was to blame. United News of India said it may have been sparked by the explosion of a gas cylinder used for cooking.