A mass leader, Union minister Vilarao Deshmukh was given a tearful adieu on Wednesday by tens of thousands of grieving people at his native village in Latur from where he began his political journey as an obscure sarpanch four decades ago.
Shortly before Deshmukh's body was consigned to flames, a solemn-looking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi placed wreaths on the casket carrying the body of Maharashtra's tallest Congress leader and twice chief minister at Dayanand Vidyalaya where it lay in state for public to pay their last respects.
A sea of humanity, including hundreds of moist-eyed women, converged in Babhalgaon, on the outskirts of district town of Latur, for the last glimpse of the illustrious son of the soil who rose in their midst to stride the corridors of power in Mumbai and Delhi.
As a mark of respect to the departed leader, all shops and businesses remained closed for the second consecutive day on Wednesday and many people observed fast, locals said.
Security arrangements at levels never before seen have been put in place since Wednesday morning when Deshmukh's body was brought by a special Indian Air Force aircraft to Latur for the last rites in his native village.
Deshmukh spent his childhood in Babhalgaon, became one of its youngest sarpanch (village head), and later went on to become Maharashtra chief minister twice and also a union minister.
He breathed his last in Chennai's Global Hospital Tuesday after a cardiac arrest following multiple organ failure.
Shortly after it arrived and got stuck in a traffic jam owing to the huge crowds on the roads, the cortege carrying the coffin was placed for public 'darshan' at the Dayanand School.
In attendance were a galaxy of leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Union ministers Sushilkumar Shinde, Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Vayalar Ravi, Rajiv Shukla, Mukul Wasnik, Maharashtra governor K Sankaranarayanan, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, his deputy Ajit Pawar and a host of Bollywood personalities.
Since soft-spoken Deshmukh never allowed political affiliations to come in the way of friendship, rivals like BJP president Nitin Gadkari and party's deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Gopinath Munde were also present. So were Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Karnataka chief minister Dharam Singh.
The last rites were performed by Deshmukh's eldest son and Latur town MLA Amit at a family farm close to where his father Dagdojirao Deshmukh was cremated.
Gandhi walked up to Deshmukh's widow Vaishali, who fought back tears, and held her in comforting embrace as the Prime Minister offered his condolences to the departed leader's son Amit. Deshmukh's teary-eyed family members, including his wife, actor son Riteish and Dheeraj, acknowledged with gratitude the condolences with folded hands.
The state government declared a three-day official mourning .
President Pranab Mukherjee termed Deshmukh a "towering leader of Maharashtra" and "an esteemed colleague and a dear friend".
"The nation has lost a personality who was always in touch with the grassroots of society," Mukherjee said in a message to Deshmukh's widow Vaishali.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the death of his "trusted colleague".
"He was a trusted colleague and an able administrator who worked at panchayat, state and central levels with admirable dedication," he said in a statement.
Political leaders remembered Deshmukh as an amiable, warm-hearted leader who had the cause of farmers and youth as his primary focus.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari said Deshmukh was an able administrator.
"In his death, I have lost a friend and Maharashtra a veteran politician," he said.
"He was very unwell. We were hoping for his recovery. I am saddened, shocked," said Ashwani Kumar, who worked as deputy to Deshmukh in the science and technology ministry.
Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan said it was "very unfortunate to lose such a promising leader at a young age".
Agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar said Deshmukh's journey from the village sarpanch to chief minister and union cabinet minister was admirable.
".... not only the state of Maharashtra but the entire nation has lost a great leader and a promising statesman. Under his leadership, Maharashtra state could achieve tremendous progress in every sphere...I am sure his ideas and ideals will continue to inspire the people of the country," Pawar said.
Leaders from Maharashtra including Governor K. Sankaranarayanan, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, and Republican Party of India (RPI) chief Ramdas Athawale also condoled Deshmukh's death.
The Bollywood fraternity wished peace to the departed soul and strength to the late minister's family, including his actor-son Riteish.
Madhuri Dixit, Karan Johar, Bipasha Basu, Dia Mirza and Raveena Tandon extended condolences to the bereaved family through Twitter.
Shah Rukh Khan also expressed grief over the sudden demise of Deshmukh and remembered him as a "wonderful" gentleman.
"I'm feeling very sorry. I have known him (Vilasrao) for years. Riteish is a close friend of mine. I spoke to him. I am very sad, it is very unexpected," he said on the sidelines of an event.