Thousands mourn as Gandhi's body is cremated

May 25, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

DELHI, India -- Aided by a white-bearded Hindu priest, Rajiv Gandhi's 19-year-old son sprinkled water from the sacred Ganges River on his slain father's funeral pyre.

Rahul Gandhi then circled the shrouded corpse seven times with a small burning torch in his hand. Bending over, he gingerly ignited the stack of sandalwood.

Black smoke billowed up from what quickly became a roaring fire. Bugles sounded over a stream of Hindi-language prayers. In the distance, tens of thousands of mourners strained against stick-wielding security forces in more than 100-degree heat.

And Rajiv Gandhi's soul, by ancient Hindu belief, began the process of leaving his burning body.

Mr. Gandhi's subdued, 40-minute traditional cremation here late yesterday afternoon followed a three-hour procession in which his remains were borne at a slow walking pace on a World War II-era artillery carrier.

An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Indians -- many appearing more curious than grief-stricken -- lined the cortege's six-mile, zigzag course through the heart of New Delhi to a large, grassy park in old Delhi by the western bank of the Yamuna River.

Relative to the million emotional mourners who turned out for the 1984 funeral of Mr. Gandhi's mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, yesterday's crowd was small, orderly and restrained in its expressions of grief. No serious violence was reported.

Along the way, however, hundreds of mourners constantly surged toward Mr. Gandhi's flower-strewn casket with raised hands and cries of "Long live Rajiv Gandhi." They formed a hot, slippery mass that had to be held back by armed troops. At one point the crowd broke through the security lines, but it was quickly beaten off with sticks.

"As long as the sun and the moon are here, Rajiv's name will be our guiding spirit," yelled one man.

The crowd also pressed against the windows of the car carrying Mr. Gandhi's widow, Sonia, 45, repeatedly calling out her name and urging her to reconsider her rejection Thursday of the presidency of Mr. Gandhi's political party.

The 46-year-old Mr. Gandhi -- India's prime minister from 1984 to 1989 and the heir to the family that has led India for 38 of its 44 years of independence -- was slain Tuesday night by a bomb blast while campaigning for re-election.

Those responsible for his death have not been found, but investigators think the explosives were carried in an abdominal belt worn by a young woman on an apparent suicide mission, according to press reports.

Coming right after the first of three days of voting in India's national elections, Mr. Gandhi's killing has thrown its national politics for a loop and left a gaping hole at the top of his Congress Party.

The last two days of the elections will resume in less than three weeks, but so far Congress Party elders have been unable to persuade his widow to take over as their leader -- a request that is likely to be repeated in the next day or so.

Mr. Gandhi's funeral was attended by almost 30 foreign dignitaries, among them Vice President Dan Quayle, who sat behind Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, and Britain's Prince Charles, who wore a white, ceremonial British Navy uniform.

The funeral procession began just before 2 p.m. with Mr. Gandhi's body leaving the house where it had lain in state for two days, the former residence of his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

Armed commandos -- called "black cats" for their all-black uniforms -- rode in jeeps immediately in front and to the rear of the casket. A helicopter roared overhead, periodically dropping clusters of red rose petals onto the procession.

At the cremation site, an honor guard, wearing dark green turbans with red plumage, led the way to a 3-foot-high brick platform on which rested the lower half of the pyre.

Hindu hymns coming over loudspeakers were briefly and oddly interrupted by a biblical prayer in English: "We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of the world."

Mr. Gandhi's body, wrapped in white homespun cotton called kadi, was laid on the sandalwood, his head pointing south according to Hindu custom. More rose petals were placed on the corpse and pyre.

Mrs. Gandhi and her 21-year-old daughter, Priyanka, helped Rahul Gandhi stack more wood on the top and the sides of the body until it was no longer visible.

When the flames began to rise up and engulf Mr. Gandhi's fTC corpse, the three stood next to each other watching the fire for a few minutes, their arms around each other's shoulders. Then they quietly and quickly left.

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