CHENNAI, India: Tens of thousands of mourners filed past the coffin of the Indian politician Jayalalithaa Jayaram on Tuesday in an emotional farewell to the former movie star who enjoyed almost god-like status in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The 68-year-old Jayalalithaa, described by her party as the Iron Lady of India, died late Monday after suffering a massive cardiac arrest at the weekend following a long period of ill health.
Despite being twice jailed over allegations of corruption, the woman known by Tamils simply as Amma, or mother, was a revered figure in her southern fiefdom and one of India’s most popular and successful politicians as a populist champion of the poor.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew into the state capital Chennai to pay his own respects, streams of her supporters lined up outside a hall in the center of the city where her casket was put on display.
While the coffin was wrapped in an Indian flag, many of the mourners were wearing scarves with the red, white and black colors of Jayalalithaa’s party.
Many of the women mourners could be seen screaming hysterically and weeping although there were no reports of serious unrest amid a large security presence.
“It is a very sad day. She was an essential part of the state. She was meant for greatness,” said Christina Paun, a 34-year-old university professor who was among those queueing to pay their respects.
“She had a very difficult life in a male-dominated society but she was always different. She was always great. She had perfect control over her emotions.
“She has left a big void and we will have to see if someone can fill her shoes.”
Famed for a vast sari collection that won her comparisons with Imelda Marcos, Jayalalithaa was also one of India’s most polarizing politicians, seen by some as an autocratic and secretive leader.
But nothing could dent her popularity in Tamil Nadu, where she was elected as chief minister on four occasions in a period in which it became one of India’s most prosperous states.
Hundreds of devotees had kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the private hospital in Chennai—the city formerly known as Madras—since she was first admitted in September suffering from a fever.
When she first fell ill one supporter set himself on fire, while an elderly man suspended himself from a crane with steel hooks pierced through his skin.
“The people are very depressed. We were expecting her to recover even yesterday. She is the bravest lady in the world,” said Manohar, a businessman who was among the queue of mourners.
Modi was among the first to pay tribute to Jayalalithaa, whose regional party has the third largest number of lawmakers in the national parliament.
“I will always cherish the innumerable occasions when I had the opportunity to interact with Jayalalithaa ji (honorific). May her soul rest in peace,” Modi said on Twitter.
The southern state had been tense since Sunday after reports that her health had worsened and she had been put on life support.
On Monday, scuffles broke out outside the hospital as many of her thousands of supporters there tried to break through the police barricades.
When her political mentor and former on-screen love interest M. G. Ramachandran died in 1987, riots and looting broke out across the state.
Ahead of Jayalalithaa’s death, police and security presence was beefed up across Tamil Nadu over fears of an emotional reaction from her followers.
Jayalalithaa had earned the loyalty of many voters with a series of populist schemes, including “Amma canteens” that provided lunch for just three rupees (five cents) and vast election-time giveaways that ranged from laptops to kitchen appliances.
Several of her supporters resorted to self-harm when she was briefly jailed in 2014 on charges of corruption.
Her conviction, later overturned on appeal, sparked mass protests and even some reported suicides.
Thousands of directors, actors and producers in the successful Tamil language film industry went on hunger strike to demand her release.
Jayalalithaa’s death has plunged one of India’s most economically powerful states into a period of political uncertainty.
Her trusted cabinet aide, O Panneerselvam, was sworn-in as the chief minister, but observers worry whether a loyalist, without real charisma or mass support, will be able to rule smoothly. AFP