Three women were killed in a stampede outside the district's Khatu Shyamji temple when people waiting in queues tried to rush in as its doors opened in the early hours of Monday.
Four others were injured in the incident on a day when tens of thousands of people from Rajasthan and neighbouring states were headed to the famous temple to mark “Gyaras” or “Ekadashi”.
Sikar Collector Avichal Chaturvedi said close to one lakh people were outside the main gate, queuing up after the doors closed the previous night.
The stamped took place a little before 4.30 a.m. There was rush to enter and a woman fell, triggering the brief stampede that also killed two others, according to officials.
“Prima facie, they died of suffocation but the exact cause of death will be clear after post-mortem,” Chaturvedi told reporters.
“The incident is unfortunate. The women fell due to the pressure of the crowd in their line. The lines for the entry to the temple start at different points and converge at the entry point,” he said.
Superintendent of Police K Rashtradeep said a 63-year-old woman who suffered from a heart ailment collapsed. “Two women behind her too fell due to the rush.”
Victim Shanti Devi's brother Mangat Ram was among those in the queue.
"The stampede took place as soon as the temple opened for prayers. Somehow, we managed to escape. My sister was old, she got stuck and died. Others from my family suffered injuries," he said.
Police have suspended the local station house officer.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot expressed grief over the deaths.
The collector said two or three lakh people have visited the temple, located 45 km from Sikar city, over the last couple of days alone. About 40 lakh devotees have come over the past fortnight, he said.
“Lakhs of devotees visit the temple during the month of Phalgun every year and elaborate arrangements are made for crowd control. We are now examining what alternative arrangements can be made to handle big crowds on such days,” he said.
Officials said the number of devotees has increased after Covid restrictions ended.
A fair is held at Khatu Shyamji on Phalgun Ekadashi every year.
During these 10-15 days, authorities block the internal roads in the area as part of crowd management. “This affects the local people but we manage it. Now we are looking for alternatives for crowd management during Ekadashi as well,” the collector said.
SP Rashtradeep said the Khatu Shyamji SHO has been suspended.
“There was a heavy rush outside the temple. The pressure of people mounted as soon as the gates of the temple opened, which led to the situation that left three women dead. The situation was not handled well. Therefore, SHO Riya Chaudhary was suspended,” he said.
The victims were identified as Shanti Devi (Hisar, Haryana), Maya Devi (Uttar Pradesh), and Kripa Devi (Jaipur).
Shanti Devi's daughter Poonam was in tears.
"We were all standing together in the queue when we felt a sudden push from behind and all of us fell. My mother died," she said.
Prime Minister Modi tweeted, "Saddened by the loss of lives due to a stampede at the Khatu Shyamji Temple complex in Sikar, Rajasthan. My thoughts are with the bereaved families. I pray that those who are injured recover at the earliest."
Chief minister Ashok Gehlot too expressed grief.
"The death of three women due to a stampede in Khatu Shyam Ji in Sikar is very sad and unfortunate. My deepest condolences are with the bereaved family members," he tweeted in Hindi.
He said an inquiry will be conducted by the divisional commissioner. The families of the dead will be given Rs 5 lakh each from the chief minister's relief fund. The injured will get Rs 20,000 each.
On Facebook, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi offered condolences.
"The news of stampede at Khatu Shyam Ji's fair in Sikar is very saddening. I wish the injured a speedy recovery and peace to the departed souls. I also express my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives."
"I appeal to all the Congress workers of Rajasthan to help the local people, along with the administration, at the earliest," Gandhi added.
Former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot, BJP state president Satish Poonia and former chief minister Vasundhara Raje were among the other leaders who condoled the deaths.
Raje demanded an investigation and action against the guilty so that such incidents do not recur.