Eighty-five-year-old Sathya Sai Baba, one of India's most popular spiritual leaders, died in Puttaparthi on Sunday after a prolonged illness, plunging millions of his followers across the world into gloom.
The man, whom many worshipped as god despite controversy, breathed his last at the Sathya Sai Super-speciality hospital, where he was admitted March 28 with cardiac problems. With his last rites set to be performed Wednesday, many commoners and celebrities are making their way to this pilgrim town for a last glimpse.
"Sri Sathya Sai Baba is no more with us. He left his physical body at 7.40 a.m. April 24, 2011 due to cardio-respiratory failure," said a statement from the hospital released around 10.30am.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled Baba's death, saying he was an inspiration to people of all faiths and that his death was an irreparable loss to all.
"I express my sincere condolences to the millions of his followers, disciples and well wishers," he said in a message. "His teachings were rooted in the universal ideals of truth, right conduct, peace, love and non-violence."
The Sai Baba Trust runs a state-of-the-art hospital, university and several other institutions to serve the poor in over 160 countries. However, he himself reportedly visited only two foreign countries - Uganda and Kenya.
The godman's body will be taken from the hospital, about five kilometres from the town, to his Prashanti Nilayam ashram here Sunday evening.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, who air-dashed to the town, announced that Baba's last rites will be performed Wednesday with full state honours.
He also announced a four-day state mourning.
His trust appealed to devotees to have a last glimpse of Baba in an orderly manner. Even then, hundreds of pilgrims tried to rush towards the hospital, only to be stopped by a large posse of policemen.
"I can't believe that Swamy is no more," said Sharada Devi, a devotee, her voice choked with emotion.
Men were seen shedding tears, women sobbed...the pilgrim town had plunged into gloom. "Today is the saddest day of my life," said T. Raghav, another devotee, as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Over 6,000 policemen had already been deployed and additional forces are being rushed to the town to beef up security.
Vice-President Hamid Ansari also expressed his "deep sorrow" at Baba's death, saying his message of service to humanity as service to god and as a means of destroying narrow-mindedness is of eternal relevance.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani who is a follower of Sai Baba said: "I offer a tearful homage to his great soul. I would like to go for the 'anthyesthi kriya' (last rites)."
The Bollywood brigade also doled out condolence messages on micro-blogging website Twitter.
Director and producer Madhur Bhandarkar wrote: "Sad to hear about the demise of Sathya Sai Baba. He was an inspiration for many. Such an enlightened soul."
Sai Baba, whose real name was Sathyanarayana Raju, was born Nov 23, 1926 at Puttaparthi. In 1940, he claimed he is an avatar of .
He became famous with his miracles but stopped performing the same after rationalists accused him of fraud. Since then Sai Baba had been focusing on social and charitable work.
His devotees are spread across the world and they include the heads of states and governments, politicians, film and sports personalities, judges and army officials.