Fire swept through a thatched-roof hall where scores of worshipers had gathered to seek the blessing of a dead Hindu guru on Sunday, killing more than 177 people, officials said.
Rescue workers, using shovels and pitchforks, had retrieved 154 bodies by this morning while 23 people had died in the hospital, said Gobinda Chandra, a district magistrate.
He said 123 people remained hospitalized, 30 of them in critical condition.
The fire tore through a temporary hall erected for followers of the late Swami Nigamananda, a Hindu spiritual leader, who had assembled for several days of worship on the outskirts of Baripada, about 750 miles southeast of New Delhi.
The flames sent panicked worshipers running, Press Trust of India reported, quoting witnesses. Many of the victims may have died in the stampede, the news agency said.
The fire overwhelmed Baripada, which has only two firetrucks. 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 with straw walls and thatched roofs to serve as meeting halls and temporary shelters, according to Sanjeeb Hota, home secretary of the eastern coastal state of Orissa. “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 the fire may have been sparked by the explosion of a gas cylinder used for cooking.