THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (AFP) – At least 64 people died and scores were injured Friday in a stampede as crowds at a Hindu religious festival in southern India panicked after a road accident, officials said.

The tragedy unfolded at around 8:00 pm local time (1630 GMT) in a remote mountainous area of Kerala during a pilgrimage to the shrine of Sabarimala that draws three to four million people each year, according to organisers.

State Home Minister Kodiuyeri Balakrishnan told AFP that sixty-four bodies had been retrieved from the hilly and densely forested area where pilgrims were packed onto narrow paths and roads at the end of the festival season.

Another 75 injured had been transferred to local hospitals.

Rescuers and senior state officials rushed to the scene, but the remote location, heavy traffic and the thick forest terrain hampered the relief effort.

“Relief operations are going on,” Balakrishnan said amid suggestions from other officials that the death toll could rise at the site in Idukki district, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

The cause of the stampede remained unclear, with most local officials suggesting either a jeep or a bus had ploughed into a crowd. Other reports said a group of pilgrims had tried to move a vehicle which then toppled onto the crowd.

Indian television ran pictures of casualties being passed over the heads of tightly packed crowds of pilgrims in a rescue effort that stretched deep into the night.

It is the second time in recent memory that the festival has been struck by disaster. In 1999 more than 50 Hindu devotees died after a landslide on a crowded hillside at the site.

Stampedes at public events in India are common as large numbers of people crowd into congested areas. Few safety regulations and absent or inadequate policing mean panic can spread quickly with deadly consequences.

The spark is often an accident but occasionally simply a rumour about a bomb or attack leads to a crush. Women and children frequently make up the majority of the victims.

Special police commissioner Rajendra Nair estimated that as many as 100 people might have lost their lives, while state Education Minister M.A. Baby said the final death toll could climb as high as 90.

“It was a bus accident first and after the accident people panicked,” Rahul Eashwar, a spokesman for the pilgrimage organisation, the Sabarimala Trust, told the NDTV news channel.

Under the customs of the pilgrimage, hundreds of thousands of men and women set off on foot in groups for the Sabarimala temple, each carrying a cloth bundle containing traditional offerings.

But many of the elderly, or those short of time, opt to cram into overloaded buses and jeeps to travel as close as possible to the temple which is believed to be where the god Ayyappa meditated.

The shrine is packed with devotees throughout the pilgrimage season from November to January.

The governor of Kerala, a popular holiday destination and spice-growing region with sandy beaches and lush green mountains, expressed his sadness at the loss of life.

R.S. Gavai said he was “deeply shocked and saddened at the tragic accident.”

He added: “I share my profound grief of the bereaved families and pray for the speedy recovery of those injured.”

In March last year, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh blamed lax safety for the deaths of 63 people — all of them women and children — in a stampede outside another Hindu temple.

At least another 10 people died in a stampede at a temple in the state of Bihar in October.