Indian politicians pay last respects to Hindu guru

AP News
Posted: Apr 26, 2011 7:05 AM
Indian politicians pay last respects to Hindu guru

A mile (kilometer) -long line of Indians and foreigners queued for hours in the blistering afternoon sunshine Tuesday for their chance to circle past the glass coffin of Indian spiritual guru Sathya Sai Baba and pay their respects.

State-run All India Radio said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi were expected to visit his ashram or spiritual center in Puttaparti, the southern Indian town where the guru was born.

The 84-year-old's Sunday death triggered an outpouring of grief from followers who included Indian politicians, movie stars, athletes and industrialists. Most remembered him as a pious, selfless person who worked to help others with the billions of dollars donated to his charitable trust. However, he had also been dismissed by some in the past as a charlatan who passed off magic tricks as miracles.

Within India, Sai Baba was a well-known face and his photograph, with a halo of frizzy dark hair and orange robes, adorned millions of homes, car dashboards and lockets worn by Indian and foreign believers.

His body has been kept in a glass casket inside the main auditorium of his ashram since Sunday evening.

On Tuesday, hundreds of volunteers _ men dressed in white trousers and shirts with blue scarves, and women in saris and yellow scarves _ handed out plates of food and packets of cookies and drinking water to the long line of mourners.

A canopy stretched several hundred feet (meters) to protect the mourners, but the serpentine queues were over a mile (kilometer) long and thousands waited under the beating sun.

Afternoon temperatures in Puttaparti can soar to well over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) in April.

Narendra Modi, the top elected official of the western state of Gujarat, was among the mourners Tuesday.

Sai Baba's body will be on display through Tuesday, and hundreds of thousands are expected to visit before his state funeral Wednesday morning.

Sai Baba spiritual centers, or ashrams, exist in more than 126 countries. The guru was said to perform miracles, conjuring jewelry, Rolex watches and "vibhuti" _ a sacred ash that his followers applied to their foreheads _ from his hair.

But rationalist critics called him a charlatan and his miracles fake. Several news reports alleged he sexually abused devotees _ accusations he denied as smear campaigns.

The allegations and criticism did not reduce the intense devotion from his followers.

Health problems forced Sai Baba to reduce public appearances in recent years. He had been hospitalized for nearly a month.

The trust _ estimated to be worth at least $8.9 billion and possibly much more _ has no named successor.