Thousands mourn Indian guru Sai Baba

Followers including celebrities flock to bid farewell to Sai Baba, forming long queues outside his Puttaparthi ashram.

    Sai Baba was credited by millions of followers across the world with supernatural powers [Reuters]

    Thousands of grieving devotees, including cricket star Sachin Tendulkar, have been filing past the body of Sathya Sai Baba, a popular Indian guru who attracted a worldwide following.

    Sai Baba's corpse was displayed in a transparent casket on Monday at his ashram in Puttaparthi, a village in southeast India that was transformed into a major pilgrimage centre during his life.

    Followers wept as they bid farewell to their spiritual leader, who died aged 84 of multiple organ failure on Sunday morning after spending three weeks in hospital.

    Locals and visitors, who had descended on Puttaparthi to pray for Sai Baba's recovery, formed long queues outside the ashram, waiting hours in the heat for the chance to see him one last time.

    Police reinforcements from across Andhra Pradesh state were on duty and crowd barriers were erected to control mourners frustrated that dignitaries were ushered ahead to view the body.

    "Many VIPs are allowed to see our god quickly without standing in line, while we have to wait hours to enter the hall," complained Ramesh Kumar, 38, a teacher from Chennai.

    Sai Baba was credited by millions of followers across the globe with supernatural powers, including the ability to conjure objects out of thin air, remember past lives and cure terminal diseases.

    Instantly recognisable for his wild curly hair and saffron robes, he was followed by Indian politicians, judges, Bollywood actors and sports stars as well as legions of the poor.

    Celebrities mourn Baba

    Former national cricket captain Sunil Gavaskar was among those who rushed to Puttaparthi to pay homage.

    "He's left his physical form but we all know that he's going to live in our hearts," Gavaskar told the Star News television channel. "He will continue to guide and inspire us."

    Tendulkar, who flew in after a cricket match on Sunday evening, sat quietly by the body for a few moments with his wife Anjali, wiping tears from his eyes as scented sticks and musical chanting filled the air.

    Veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan led Bollywood's tributes, calling Sai Baba "a saint, a generous soul, a builder of society".

    Sai Baba's organisation funds health and education projects in India, including hospitals and clinics that say they cure ailments beyond the capabilities of mainstream medicine.

    From his ashram, he established schools and centres that spread his influence internationally, attracting supporters in the West such as Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn.

    Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday said Sai Baba "was an inspiration to people of all faiths", but others saw him as a charismatic charlatan.

    His capacity to miraculously produce gold coins and watches at public meetings was often dismissed as a basic magic trick - criticism that did nothing to dent his popularity.

    He also faced allegations of sexual abuse of young male followers, which his opponents said were ignored by Indian authorities too fearful to investigate him.

    His body will be buried on Wednesday, in accordance with the common practice for spiritual leaders in India but contrary to the regular Hindu custom of cremation.

    India's Economic Times reported that Sri Lankan Airlines , the country's national carrier, will fly additional flights to India for the devotees who want to pay their last respects to Sai Baba.

    "The airline will have additional capacity on their daily flights to Bangalore from April 26 onwards in order to accommodate all devotees who wish to pay final homage to their spiritual leader," a spokesman of the airline said on Monday.

    Besides, the airline will also provide special charter flights, he said.

    'Uncertain future'

    With Sei Baba leaving no named successor to run his Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust (SSSCT), worth an estimated $9bn, some observers now predict a power struggle among his closest aides.

    According to Indian television channel NDTV, K. Chakravarthi, the trust's secretary, is one of the key people expected to decide on the coming events at Puttaparthi.

    Chakravarthi is the only trust member with cheque-signing power.

    Another important player is likely to be Satyajit, Baba's personal caregiver, who though not a member of the trust was very close to the guru.

    Last year, Baba is believed to have suggested that Satyajit should become a member of the trust.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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