“So far 14 women and two men have died, and 46 others are seriously injured,” D. Santhel Pandiyan, district magistrate in the nearby town of Haridwar, told AFP by telephone from the accident site.
“More worshippers turned up than the place could accommodate and so the stampede occurred.”
Hemant Sahu, media contact for the event organisers, said that tens of thousands of Hindu devotees crowded towards a fire at the ashram to make offerings.
“When the big ritual was going on, too many people rushed forward to make their offerings to the holy fire and the crowd got out of control,” he said.
“A couple of people fell down and that is what happened. We think the death toll may still go up.”
As emergency teams and officials rushed to the scene, local reports varied on how the accident had occurred.
The Press Trust of India news agency reported the stampede broke out when worshippers tried to enter the Shantikunj ashram to take part in a ritual to celebrate 100 years since the birth of its revered founder Shreeram Sharma.
Large numbers of people have gathered at the sprawling ashram for the five-day festival.
Haridwar, 107 miles (173 kilometres) north of New Delhi where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayan mountains, is one of Hinduism’s most sacred cities and among India’s biggest pilgrim destinations.
Stampedes are a regular risk in India where policing and crowd control are often inadequate at temples and on pilgrimage routes, where throngs of fervent devotees congregate on auspicious occasions.
The last major stampede in India was in January in the southern state of Kerala when more than 100 people died as panic spread among worshippers crossing mountainous terrain in the dark to visit a shrine.
Stampedes in India are often triggered by rumours of a bomb blast, a collapsed wall or a car crash.
In March last year, police in 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 2010.
The worst recent incident was in October 2008 when around 220 people died near a temple inside Jodhpur’s famous Mehrangarh Fort.