New Delhi, Aug 17: Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose appeal transcended party lines and geographical boundaries, was cremated with full military honours on Friday in the presence of the country's top leaders cutting across the political divide and adoring masses.
Amidst chanting of vedic hymns and firing of a 21-gun salute by soldiers, his foster-daughter Namita lit the funeral pyre in the presence of a galaxy of leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, political leaders and foreign dignitaries bidding adieu to the departed leader at the Rashtriya Smriti Sthal.
Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah had earlier walked with the gun-carriage carrying the mortal remains of Vajpayee as it made its way from the party headquarters at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg to the cremation venue, a designated spot for the last rites of Presidents, Vice Presidents and Prime Ministers.
People had been thronging Vajpayee's residence since morning on Krishna Menon Marg, where the body was kept since Thursday night.
The crowds swelled as the mortal remains were brought to the BJP's new headquarters and kept there for over three hours for people to pay their last respects.
Delayed by an hour, the final journey saw a sea of people converging on the route to the Rashtriya Smriti Sthal, a distance of less than 3 km on the banks of the Yamuna river.
In keeping with the military traditions, the three service chiefs placed wreaths on the body of Vajpayee before leaders paid their tributes for one last time.
The tricolour that was wrapped around Vajpayee's body was given to his foster granddaughter Niharika after which the body was handed over to the family for the last rites.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, veteran BJP leaders and Vajpayee's long-time associates L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were present at the funeral.
Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai led foreign dignitaries including Pakistan Law Minister Syed Ali Zafar, Nepal Foreign Affairs Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, acting Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Lakshman Kiriella and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in paying homage.
Among the dignitaries who attended the funeral were former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge and Anand Sharma, Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai, former Union Minister A. Raja, MDMK chief Vaiko and TMC leader Dinesh Trivedi.
The cremation ground was surcharged with emotion as Vajpayee's body was consigned to the flames. People, many of them misty-eyed, raised slogans like "Atalji amar rahen".
People gathered at places enroute the procession, including a madrassa, raising slogans hailing Vajpayee. Many of the people who came had grown up with Vajpayee's spellbinding oratory and were impressed with his poems.
Vajpayee had a pan-India appeal cutting across boundaries of caste, community, language and his flair for foreign policy and initiatives was acknowledged globally. His political rivals were also touched by his gentleness and magnanimity.
When the final journey started from the BJP's central office, Modi and Amit Shah walked behind the flower-decked gun carriage carrying the body of Vajpayee draped in the tricolour as security personnel kept a tight watch.
Deferring to Vajpayee's stature, Modi and Shah walked the entire route till the cremation ground leading the mourners, who included union ministers, BJP leaders and tens of thousands of people.
People threw flower petals on the casket all through the three-kilometre route as an expression of their love, respect and admiration for the late leader.
Slogans like "Atalji amar rahen", "Jab tak sooraj chand rahega, Atalji ka naam rahega", "Bharat Mata ki jai" and "Vande Mataram" rent the air as the procession progressed. Some people were carrying banners containing lines from poems written by Vajpayee.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was also in the procession and supporters accompanying him raised slogans of "Jai Shri Ram". A number of BJP chief ministers including, Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Manohar Lal Khattar (Haryana), Union Ministers and BJP leaders accompanied the funeral procession.
Earlier, Modi, Shah, Advani, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, his deputy Manish Sisodia, CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader D. Raja, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E. Palanisami were among the leaders who paid tributes to Vajpayee at the party office after his body was brought there from his Krishna Menon Marg residence.
Before the body was taken from the residence, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, DMK Working President M.K. Stalin, MDMK chief Vaiko, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force placed wreaths and paid their last respects.
Tight security arrangements had been made for the final procession by the security forces anticipating the participation of a large number of people.
The country is observing a seven-day state mourning as a mark of respect for the leader who had been decorated with the Bharat Ratna and was very popular. The tricolour is flying half-staff.