Huge crowds of grieving South Africans converged on Soweto's World Cup stadium Tuesday, to sit side-by-side with presidents, priests, queens and sheikhs at a memorial service for unifying global icon Nelson Mandela.
Close to 100 world leaders were among 80,000 people expected to cram into the venue in Soweto -- the crucible of Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle -- to bid farewell to a man whose life story earned uncommon universal respect.
President Pranab Mukherjee reached Johannesburg with Indian delegation , which included Congress president Sonia Gandhi, to South Africa for the memorial service of the anti-apartheid icon.
In a departure statement, the president said he was leaving with sadness for the memorial service to be held in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
The delegation accompanying the president includes commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and MPs Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and Satish Chandra Mishra of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as well as senior government officials.
Five hours before the memorial began, large crowds had already gathered in a light drizzle, hoping for one of the first-comer tickets.
Wrapped in the South African flags or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan "Mandela Forever," they danced and jogged towards the stadium entrance, some singing in Zulu: "Mandela is not sleeping, just kneeling."
Thousands more were boarding free trains from central Johannesburg, mixing excitedly together on the platform and in the compartments -- men and women of all ages and races.
"I am going to the memorial to be closer to the national mood, to come out of my bubble," said white Afrikaans speaker Marcel Boezaart, 26.
News of Mandela's death at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday resonated around the world, triggering a wave of loving admiration from political and religious leaders, some of whom agree on little else.
Going to Johannesburg with Rashtrapatiji to attend the memorial service of the great leader Shri Nelson Mandela.— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwarajbjp) December 9, 2013
Global rivalries put on pause
The presidents of the United States and Cuba are among those who will share the memorial stage, pausing rivalries that date back to the Cold War to pay tribute as millions around the world look on.
The event is part of an extended state funeral that will culminate in the prisoner-turned-president's burial on Sunday in the rural village of Qunu where he spent his early childhood.
Some 11,000 soldiers have been deployed as part of a massive security operation to ensure order as South Africans grab their final chance to unite in a mass celebration of Mandela's life ahead of the more formal lying in state.
The Indian and Brazilian presidents will also deliver eulogies Tuesday, reflecting the extraordinary global reach, popularity and influence of one of the 20th century's towering political figures.
Four of Mandela's grandchildren will speak for his family, while neither his widow, Graca Machel, nor his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela are listed on the programme.
Some 120,000 people were able to watch the event on giant screens set up in three overflow stadiums in Johannesburg.
Although Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death was a body blow for this recently reborn nation.
He had been out of public life for more than a decade, but South Africans looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.
'He really was like a magician'
On the eve of the memorial Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu described Mandela as a "magician" who conjured a united nation out of a country teetering on the brink of civil war.
"Everybody was saying we would go up in flames," he said. "He really was like a magician with a magic wand, turning us into this glorious, multi-coloured rainbow people."
A single candle was lit Monday in Mandela's tiny prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent the harshest of his 27 years in apartheid jails, before emerging to lead his country out of the shadow of apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.
On Monday, his eldest daughter Makaziwe Mandela told how her father spent a "wonderful" week surrounded by family before he died.
"The children were there, the grandchildren were there, Graca was there, so we are always around him, even at the last moment," she told the BBC.
Ahead of the burial in Qunu, Mandela's body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where he was sworn in as president in 1994.
Each morning, his coffin will be borne through the streets of the capital in a funeral cortege, to give as many people as possible the chance to pay their final respects.
As well as Obama and three previous occupants of the White House, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were all on the guest list.
Parliament met for a special tribute session Monday, with MPs carrying single red roses as they entered the assembly building that was flanked by giant portraits of Mandela in tribal dress and as an elder statesman.
Opposition leader Helen Zille said every politician had a duty to carry forward Mandela's ideals of justice and equality for all.
"He has handed the baton to us and we dare not drop it," Zille said. Africa will be represented at the funeral by Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and more than a dozen other heads of state and government.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as British billionaire Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel were expected to be among the celebrity mourners.
(With Agency inputs)