ALLAHABAD, India (Reuters) - The embalmed body of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian mystic and Beatles' guru who helped bring transcendental meditation to the West, was cremated on Monday on a huge pyre of sandalwood by India's holiest river.
The pyre was lit by his family members and tens of thousands of devotees gathered around as a helicopter rained rose petals. The guru died last week at his Dutch retreat.
Volunteers of his order frenziedly chanted Vedic hymns to the clashing of cymbals and beating of drums. Police gave a gun salute.
Newly anointed leaders of the order, in flowing cream robes and wearing gold crowns and medallion, watched solemnly. Many of them wiped tears with hankerchiefs.
"Now we have a greater responsibility, but we will always receive direction and purpose from Maharishi," John Konhaus, one of the order's 35 new heads or "rajas," told Reuters.
The cremation was held on the campus of Maharishi's "ashram" or hermitage overlooking the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers, and a mythical third river, the Saraswati.
Millions of Hindu faithful bathe every year at this site in the belief it will wash away their sins and liberate them from the cycle of birth and death.
"This is where it all began," said Robert Roth, spokesman of Maharishi's global order, referring to the town where he spent many years studying. "After the cremation, a marbled tomb is going to be built on his ashes."
Women, in keeping with Hindu rituals, were barred from watching the elaborate funeral ritual that consisted of daubing the body in "ghee" and saffron vermilion.
Earlier, volunteers plastered cow dung paste, considered sacred by Hindus and also used as a disinfectant, on a funeral platform decorated with marigold flowers and hundreds of yellow and saffron flags.
Many devotees were seen meditating as the pyre blazed and the chanting reached a crescendo.
Maharishi's meditation techniques became famous after the Beatles visited his ashram in India and celebrities such as filmmaker David Lynch and Mike Love of the Beach Boys endorsed him.
But critics dismissed him as a hippie mystic, recognizable in the familiar image of him laughing, sitting cross-legged, wearing a white silk wrap-around with a garland of flowers around his neck beneath a scraggly salt and pepper beard that whitened with age.
He also championed "yogic flying," said to be the ultimate level of transcendence in which practitioners try to summon a surge of energy to physically lift themselves off the ground.
Editing by David Fox