Throngs of tearful devotees gathered Wednesday for the funeral of Sathya Sai Baba, one of India's best-known Hindu ascetics who was revered by millions as a divine incarnation with miraculous healing powers.
The 84-year-old was buried in an auditorium in his spiritual center in southern India where his body had been lying in state for the last three days. As Sai Baba's nephew performed the last rites, Hindu priests chanting verses from sacred texts instructed him to anoint the body with oil, herbs and flowers.
Tens of thousands of devotees, many sobbing quietly, filled the auditorium and the streets outside, where they watched the funeral on a large screen. Several Indian television channels broadcast the funeral live.
At one point, a Western devotee in the auditorium stood up and shouted, "Swami we need you back," several times before calming himself.
The actual burial was a private moment, with a heavy maroon curtain lifted to surround the body and just immediate family and close associates allowed to view.
Hindus usually cremate their dead, but infants and people considered pure and saintly are buried. Hindu holy men are usually buried in a cross-legged sitting posture called the lotus position in the ancient Indian practice of Yoga.
Sai Baba, whose massive popularity was sometimes marred by controversies including allegations of sexual abuse, died Sunday of heart and lung failure after about a month in a hospital. His passing triggered an outpouring of grief from followers in India and abroad.
"I feel helpless. I feel like a guiding force has now left," Aruna Doraiswamy, a 50-year-old housewife from New Delhi, who traveled to Puttaparti, said amid sobs.
For three days, his body was on display in a glass casket in his ashram, or spiritual center.
Among the multitude who came to pay their last respects were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, governing Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, movie stars, athletes, industrialists and thousands of ordinary people.
Many had traveled overnight by bus in southern India's torrid heat to attend the funeral.
"I just wanted to see the Baba one last time," said Ramchand Tirole, 34, a farmer from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Most remembered Sai Baba 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.
Religious leaders from different faiths, including a Christian priest and a Muslim imam, addressed the crowd before the funeral. Several enormous portraits of the guru _ with his halo of dark, frizzy hair and in his trademark orange robes _ decorated the hall.
The funeral was a state event and as the ceremony started, government troops fired a 21-gun salute. Sai Baba's casket was briefly draped in an Indian flag.
Born Nov. 23, 1926, as Sathyanarayana Raju, as a child Sai Baba was said to display a tendency toward spirituality and unusual intelligence, which he expressed through music, dance and writing poetry and plays.
In 1940, he declared himself an "avatar," or reincarnation, of another Hindu holy man called the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a town in western Maharashtra state, who died in 1918.
Since then he has gathered a huge following and his home of Puttaparti grew from a sleepy village into a vibrant town, where a sprawling "Prasanthi Nilayam" ashram, a large hospital, a university and schools run by his Sathya Sai Central Trust are now located.
Within India, Sai Baba was a well-known face: His photograph adorns millions of homes, car dashboards and lockets worn by believers. People came to his ashram from all over the country to seek his blessings, or just to get a glimpse of him.
Sai Baba also had ashrams in more than 126 countries.
The trust that manages the guru's religious empire is estimated to be worth at least $8.9 billion and possibly much more. So far no one has been named successor.
He was not married and had no children.
Associated Press writer Rafiq Maqbool in Puttaparti contributed to this report.