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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gandhi's Ashes Poured Into Ganges

ALLAHABAD, India -- Thousands of devotees Thursday bid farewell to Mahatma Gandhi as the ashes of modern India's founding father were poured into the sacred Ganges River, exactly 49 years after his assassination.

To the chanting of Hindu hymns, Gandhi's great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, removed a blackened copper urn from a wooden box that had lain in a remote bank vault for nearly half a century before being retrieved this week.

In an ancient ritual, Tushar, his wife Sonal and two children, standing on a wooden jetty over the muddy Ganges, poured milk and flowers into the urn. With their palms pressed together, dignitaries touched the urn with their foreheads. At precisely 3 p.m., local time, Tushar poured the moistened ashes into the flowing waters.

"Long live Mahatma Gandhi!" the crowd of several thousand on the sandbank cried.

"It's one of the greatest days in my life that I could see the ashes of Mahat-ma Gandhi," said Kamlesh Srivastava, a member of Kasturba Trust, a women's welfare group named after Mahatma Gandhi's wife.

The ceremony was the culmination of Tushar's efforts to retrieve his forefather's ashes from a State Bank of India vault in the eastern city of Cuttack where they had lain unclaimed since 1950.

Some authorities have called the claims that the ashes are Gandhi's a hoax. But many believe the urn was one of several containing the independence leader's remains which were sent across India for immersion ceremonies after his death.

Asked about suggestions that the ashes ought to have been subjected to a DNA test to determine if they were indeed Mahatma Gandhi's, Tushar Gandhi said:

"That would have been the greatest insult to the Mahatma; if I was selling it [the ashes] to a millionaire or putting it up for display for posterity, then somebody could have asked me to do so."

Last November, after a fast -- Gandhi's favorite means of protest -- and much media attention, the great-grandson won control of the box.

He took it on a 19-hour pilgrimage by train through four states to Allahabad, where the rivers Yamuna, Ganges and the mythical Saraswati merge at the Sangam confluence.

Earlier Thursday the box of ashes, covered with marigolds, had lain in view at a government guest house where musicians and preachers of different faiths, including Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs and Christians, sang hymns once sung by Gandhi.

The day was full of significance as it coincided with the 49th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's murder at the hands of a Hindu fanatic gunman. Also, this is the 50th year of India's independence from Britain.

"I'm very, very happy to be able to fulfill my duty as a great-grandson," Tushar, 38, said.

"Since I am able to do this today, I have forgotten about all the hurdles that I had to face in retrieving my great-grandfather's ashes. All's well that ends well."

Tushar Gandhi, a bearded graphic artist, was joined by seven other of Mahatma Gandhi's descendants at the immersion ceremony.

The Mahatma, or great soul, as the leader was called, died only five months after India won independence from Britain.