Sai Baba had millions of followers, many of whom credit him with having supernatural powers [AFP]

Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual leader and one of the country's most famous gurus, has died in hospital in his hometown of Puttaparthi.

Sai Baba passed away on Sunday morning at the age of 84 due to cardio-respiratory failure, after having spent more than three weeks in critical condition, the NDTV news channel quoted doctors as saying.

Thousands of the guru's followers gathered at the hospital where he was being treated in his hometown in southern Andhra Pradesh.

Police were forced to use barriers to hold back the crowds of mourners.

Al Jazeera's Prerna Suri in New Delhi reported that roads leading the hospital had been blocked, and authorities had deployed security forces, as, with emotions running high, they were fearing a breakdown in law and order.

"Millions are devastated by this loss. They've been praying for the past many weeks that he would recover from his illness and thousands have been pouring into Andhra Pradesh, the state where he was being treated. They've been holding rituals outside the hospital," she said.

"Even as Sai Baba passed away early this morning, thousands are pouring in still ... they're paying their last respects. His funeral is expected to be a rather large affair, because [his] teachings, which cut across a number of beliefs, from Hindu and Muslim to even Christian beliefs, attracted a lot of devotees."

The gurus devotees include a number of prominent personalities, from former prime ministers to cricketers, as well as many people outside of India.

"The authorities are saying that they will hold [his body] in state for about two days so that devotees can have their last opportunity to pay their respects to Sai Baba. Security forces have been deployed in Andhra Pradesh because the authorities there are expecting thousands ... if not tens of thousands of people to descend for his funeral," Suri said.

But Sai Baba had also been accused of child abuse, and of being a charlatan by sceptics.

"He is known for performing simple miracles and also healing his devotees of critical and life-threatening illnesses, but he has [had] allegations of child abuse [levelled against him] in the past, including members of his organisation. He's also been charged with performing magical tricks by sceptics - of course none of those allegations have been formally charged by authorities, and Sai Baba himself has consistently denied these allegations," she said.

"But I think at this point in time millions of devotees are just mourning the loss of their 'living god'."

Source: Agencies