By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, June 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India began the mass cremation of bodies recovered after devastating floods in the country's northern Himalayan region, government officials said on Thursday, adding that hundreds of people were still missing.
The floods, triggered by heavier than normal and early monsoon rains, have killed at least 822 people and displaced tens of thousands of inhabitants in Uttarakhand state, a popular destination for Hindu pilgrims due to its shrines and temples.
The disaster has been dubbed a "Himalayan tsunami" by the media due to the torrents of water unleashed in the hilly region, which sent mud and boulders crashing down, burying homes, sweeping away buildings, roads and bridges.
Eighteen bodies were cremated on Wednesday in the temple town of Kedarnath - one of the worst affected areas - and at least 40 would be cremated on Thursday, said a government doctor in Guptkashi, some 40 km (25 miles) from Kedarnath.
Media reports said 600 bodies have been recovered from the site of Kedarnath alone, but government officials could not confirm this.
"Three of our doctors are currently in Kedarnath and they are trying to help identify bodies which have been found in the area," said Sunil Kumar Verma, one of a team of nine doctors from the Uttarakhand health department.
Verma said Kedarnath was only accessible by helicopter.
The disposal of corpses is important to eliminate the risk of contaminating the water supply and outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhea and cholera.
An air force spokesman said helicopters had been dropping items such as wood and clarified butter - essential materials for Hindus to conduct their last rites.
Heavy rains over the last three days have hampered rescue operations by the army and air force who have been evacuating survivors marooned in and around the four temple towns of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri since June 15.
Around 96,500 people have so far been evacuated by land and air, said media reports. Television channels have been broadcasting dramatic pictures of desperate pilgrims scrambling to get aboard helicopters.
Government officials said around 350 people had been reported missing, but added that it was likely that there were many more.
"It's very difficult to know the real figures and the scale of the disaster at the moment as many places are still blocked and we are still struggling to get to all the affected areas," said an official with the National Disaster Management Authority.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)