Thousands flock to funeral of India guru Satya Sai Baba

Nearly half a million people gathered in the southern Indian town of Puttaparthi for the funeral of the revered Indian spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba.Sai Baba has been buried, unlike most Hindus, who are cremated.However, burial is the custom for people Hindus esteem as holy men.Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi were among thousands of mourners paying their respects to the guru.Sai Baba was buried with full state honours inside the public hall in the ashram – or spiritual centre – in Puttaparthi, the southern town where he was born and from where he blessed the millions of devotees who visited him from around the world.TV pictures showed priests chanting and carrying out the last rites next to the guru’s corpse, which has been on display in a transparent casket. Many devotees saw Sai Baba as a living god.The hall was decorated with huge portraits of the guru, with his characteristic dark, curly hair and trademark robes.

Sai Baba was given a gun salute and state honours before his body was prepared for burial by priests chanting verses from sacred texts and anointing the guru’s body with oil, herbs and flowers.The body was then covered with an orange cloth – the colour of holiness in Hinduism.The actual funeral was closed to the public with only family and members of his charitable trust attending, says the BBC’s Sanjoy Majumder in Puttaparthi.The streets around the ashram were choked with people, and several of the devotees wept, our correspondent says.Hundreds of thousands of devotees will be watching the proceedings on a giant screen that has been set up outside.Huge numbers of Indians and foreigners, among them cricket star Sachin Tendulkar, have bade a final farewell to the guru since he died of multiple organ failure on Sunday aged 84.The burial site of Sai baba is now expected to become a memorial, according to the Hindu newspaper.Sai Baba’s followers believe he had magical abilities to produce objects out of thin air, visit people in their dreams, perform miracles and cure terminal illnesses.But his critics say that many of these activities were publicity stunts. They say that he was a persuasive fraudster who used his huge popularity to avoid being investigated over allegations of murky financial practices and sexual abuse.These charges were always strenuously denied by the guru and his followers, and were never proved.His popularity remained undimmed throughout his life – Sai Baba had ashrams in 126 countries and also ran a network of hospitals, clinics and schools that were often free. – BBC