Puttaparthi: Hundreds of thousands of devotees gathered on Wednesday for the funeral of Sathya Sai Baba, one of India’s most influential spiritual leaders who enjoyed a global following.
While cremation is the most common practice at Hindu funerals, Sai Baba was buried in the custom accorded to Hindu holy men. The charismatic guru, who died of multiple organ failure on Sunday aged 85, was interred under the podium where he gave many teachings in the main hall of his ashram in the southern town of Puttaparthi.
Television screens erected around the town showed live footage of the event for the vast crowds of followers who had converged on Puttaparthi in recent days.
Since his death, Sai Baba’s body has lain inside a transparent casket on view to grieving devotees including poor villagers, foreign pilgrims and cricket stars such as Sachin Tendulkar.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party, visited the ashram to pay their last respects.
The funeral was witnessed by 15,000 invited guests -- relatives, members of the Sai Baba Trust and faculty members from the many educational institutions funded by the trust.
Sai Baba was given a gun salute and state honours before his body was prepared for burial by priests dressed in saffron robes who anointed him with oil and flowers.
As the chanting of sacred texts filled the air, his body was lowered into the ground behind a curtain.
The burial spot in the hall will be marked by a gold-plated statue of Sai Baba in a standing posture with his right hand raised.
The spiritual leader, credited with supernatural powers by his millions of followers in India and abroad, used donations to build an empire of free hospitals, schools, clinics, prayer centres and other properties and assets.
Instantly recognisable by his wild curly hair, he had ashrams in 126 countries and his trust, which has often been criticised for lack of transparency, is estimated to be worth up to $9 billion.
Puttaparthi has grown from a village into a major pilgrimage town, boasting a university and even an airport as Westerners, Indian students and the destitute clamoured to be close to a man they saw as a living god.
As well as hospitals and clinics, the Sai Baba organisation operates drinking water schemes, a museum, a planetarium and an international network of prayer rooms.
At public meetings, his showman antics - in which he would miraculously produce gold coins or watches on stage - brought him both fame and notoriety, with critics accusing him of being a fraudster.
He also faced allegations of sexual abuse of young male followers, which his opponents said were ignored by Indian authorities due to his power and popularity.