Tens of hundreds of mourners started filing past the flower-bedecked body of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa on Tuesday as a grieving Tamil Nadu shut down a day after the death of one of its most popular and charismatic leaders.
Draped in the Tricolour, the body of the AIADMK leader was kept at the Rajaji Hall, a British-era building in Chennai, where teary-eyed people paid homage to the six-time chief minister who passed away overnight at the age of 68.
Hundreds of policemen formed chains to stop the heaving crowd from surging up the steps towards the raised platform on which Jayalalithaaa’s body, draped in her favourite green saree, was kept. Men and women wept, some shedding tears, while others broke into loud wails.
Several mourners fainted from the heat and dehydration. Police said some of them had been keeping vigil outside the Apollo Hospital since Sunday and then walked to Rajaji Hall at daybreak.
Major towns and cities of the state, including capital Chennai, came to a grinding halt with few shops opening and even fewer vehicles plying on the roads. Roads leading to Chennai were, however, clogged as people from across the state poured into the capital to catch a last glimpse of their leader.
The government said the last rites of Jayalalithaa – popularly known as “Amma” -- will take place at 4.30 pm near the iconic Marina beach, at the memorial site of her mentor and former chief minister MG Ramachandran.
The state government declared a seven-day mourning period beginning Tuesday. Schools, colleges, offices and businesses were to be closed for the next three days, which have been designated a public holiday in the state. The Centre also announced a day’s national mourning.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Chennai, one of the first among several leaders from across the country expected to fly into the state capital through the day. President Pranab Mukherjee’s arrival was delayed after the plane he was travelling in developed a technical snag and had to return to Delhi. Other leaders who will pay homage to Jayalalithaa include Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
In New Delhi, lawmakers observed a minute’s silence before both houses of Parliament were adjourned for the day in respect for the AIADMK leader, a former member of Rajya Sabha.
Chief minister O Panneerselvam and his ministerial colleagues, MPs and MLAs and senior state government officials were among the first to pay homage to Jayalalithaa, who passed away at the Apollo Hospitals at 11.30 last night after waging a grim battle for life since her hospitalisation on September 22.
Her long time confidante Sasikala Natarajan was by the casket. Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu also paid his last respect.
Tamil Nadu grieves
“Our beloved leader, The Iron Lady of India ... is no more,” tweeted her AIADMK party, the third-largest party the Lok Sabha, on Monday night, drawing howls of grief and tears from the crowd of supporters outside the hospital. Rumours earlier in the evening that she had died, which proved to be false, led to brief unrest.
Heart rending scenes were played out at the Rajaji Hall where her admirers and supporters wailed and beat their chests in despair. Many said they could not imagine life without Amma, a filmstar-turned-politician.
Similar scenes were seen on the streets in a spontaneous outpouring of grief among millions whose life she touched in her three-decade-long public career.
Security was tightened across the state to prevent a repeat of the looting and rioting across Tamil Nadu when her mentor MG Ramachandran died in 1987. Her supporters are also known to commit suicide at any bad news about her.
More than 5,000 security personnel were deployed across the city. But, apart from scuffles at Poes Garden early on Tuesday morning, there have been no incidents of violence so far.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the tributes, tweeting that Jayalalithaa’s death had left a huge void in Indian politics.
“Jayalalithaa ji’s connect with the citizens, concern for welfare of the poor, the women and marginalized will always be a source of inspiration,” Modi said.
Aloof and powerful, Jayalalithaa had a cult following among the people of Tamil Nadu that endured even though she went to jail for corruption more than once.
She began a film career at 16 and rose to stardom with dozens of hit Tamil films, often with her screen partner MG Ramachandran, also an actor-turned politician who then served three terms as chief minister of the state.
With voters ready to confer god-like status on their matinee idols, she also went into politics and trumped her mentor by serving six times as head of the state.
Jayalalithaa leaves behind a legacy of populist schemes, including giving away free cellphones, laptops and kitchen grinders that endeared her to millions of voters. She also drew foreign investors to India’s second largest state economy.
She defended the giveaways as welfare measures aimed at helping the poor. She herself was known for leading an extravagant lifestyle.
In 1997, police found more than 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes after raiding her home as part of a corruption investigation.
In 2014, she was forced to step down as chief minister when she was sentenced to four years in prison for amassing assets disproportionate to her known source of income.
She spent 21 days behind bars before the Indian Supreme Court released her on bail.
In May 2015, an appeals court overturned the corruption charges, clearing the way for her return to power. She returned to office as chief minister on May 23 and a month later was re-elected in a by-election.
Jayalalithaa was born in 1948 in the village of Melukote, in what is now the state of Karnataka. Her birth name was Jayalalitha, but she reportedly added an ‘a’ on advice from a numerologist.
Her lawyer father, also named Jayaram, died when she was 2, prompting her mother to learn shorthand and typing so she could work in a clerical position to support the family and put Jayalalithaa and her brother through school. Her brother died in the early 1990s.
(With inputs from agencies)