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 Jayalalitha, 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 centre 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 colours of Jayalalitha’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.
Jayalalitha Jayaram was a former film star who went on to become one of India’s most powerful and controversial politicians, famed for her vast sari collection that won her comparisons with Imelda Marcos.
In her native southern state of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha inspired a devotion that verged on the religious.
But she was also seen as an autocratic and secretive leader, and she battled allegations of corruption on a vast scale.
She was briefly jailed on two occasions, most recently in 2014, when prison officers reportedly allowed her staff to bring her usual breakfast — a privilege not extended to other inmates.
A 1997 police raid on her properties netted 10,500 saris, 750 pairs of shoes and a 1.5-kilogram diamond-studded gold belt.
But the accusations did little to dent her popularity among followers in Tamil Nadu, which under her rule became one of India’s most prosperous states.
Ministers would prostrate themselves before her, while followers went to extraordinary lengths to show their devotion, marking her birthday by tattooing her face on their skin.
When she first fell ill in September one supporter set himself on fire, while an elderly man suspended himself from a crane with steel hooks pierced through his skin.
Their devotion was partly thanks to vast election-time giveaways that ranged from laptops to bicycles and kitchen appliances and helped her win three terms as chief minister.
Her “Amma canteens”, offering lunch for three rupees (five cents), were also a huge hit, and she managed to retain the reverence she had enjoyed as a movie star throughout her political career.
The career change was not as unusual as it might seem — cinema and politics have long been intertwined in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha’s AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party was founded by her fellow actor and on-screen love interest M. G. Ramachandran, who became her political mentor.
The pair remained close until his death in 1987, when his wife and family denied Jayalalitha permission to see his body.
“One-third of my life was dominated by my mother, the other part -— a major one —- was dominated by MGR,” she once said in an interview, referring to Ramachandran.
“One third remains, and this part of my life remains for myself.”
She quickly rose up the ranks of the party to become a member of India’s upper house in 1983, taking over as leader after Ramachandran’s death, before winning state elections in 1991 and becoming chief minister.
The allegations of corruption were first made by a rival politician in the state in 1996, and Jayalalithaa always dismissed them as politically motivated.
Prosecutors in the latest trial said her assets, which reportedly included two 1,000-acre estates in the lush tropical state she ran, were vastly disproportionate to her earnings as chief minister.
Despite a string of court battles, she was elected for a second time before winning her third stint in 2016.
In later life she gained a reputation for reclusiveness, living alone in her palatial Poes Garden residence in Chennai.