Thousands of people crowding into a park for a politician's birthday celebration and to receive free saris (search) stampeded Monday, killing 21 women and children, officials said.

The stampede came two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections in Lucknow, the capital of India's politically crucial Uttar Pradesh state and the constituency of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (search), who was headed to the city after the stampede.

The confirmed death toll stood at 21, said Lucknow's senior police superintendent, Rajiv Ranjan Verma. Doctors said 28 others were injured.

Thousands of people, mostly women, had gathered under a huge white canopy to celebrate the birthday of Lalji Tandon, the state's opposition leader — and to receive saris being given to poor women.

Indian politicians commonly give away food, liquor, blankets and other gifts at election time to attract crowds and win votes.

"We came with the hope that we would hear his speech. He celebrated his birthday and gave us death," Ketaki Devi, who ran out of the park to save herself, told reporters. "I saw several women fall down. They didn't get up."

The dead included eight women aged 45 to 60, and seven young girls who had lined up to receive saris, said Dr. Lalit Saxena, one of the doctors who took the bodies to three city hospitals.

The stampede began when rumors spread through the crowd that there were no more saris to be given away.

"We tried to stop the distribution but before we could, everything went haywire and old women were trampled to death," said Brijendra Yadav, one of the organizers.

After the chaos, hundreds of sandals were strewn across the park and chairs were overturned. Thousands of saris still waiting to be given away lay near the stage in bundles.

"There were mostly old ladies from poor families who had come to get saris," said Renuka Sharma, who was in a bookstore across the road when the stampede began.

In the hours after the stampede, dozens of bodies were stacked atop each either on the floor of a small ambulance. There were no stretchers, and no hospital workers accompanied the bodies.

Indian television showed relatives of the dead wailing as they stepped into the ambulance one by one, turning over the faces and the lifeless limbs to find their kin. A woman in a red sari shrieked hysterically as she looked around, scrambled among the dead, and found the body of her daughter.

"We were not given prior information of the event. It is the responsibility of the organizers to inform the police," said Verma, the police superintendent. "There will be an inquiry against them for carelessness, resulting in the deaths of so many people."