They began lining up in the predawn darkness of a chilly autumn morning -- men, women and children in dress ranging from the three-piece suits of prosperous Bombay businessmen to the tattered dhotis worn by low-caste peasants who hiked from resettlement colonies across the Yamuna River to say goodbye to the "Mother of India."
The line of mourners stretched more than a mile from the sprawling former house of Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, where the prime minister's body rested.
By noon, the crowd had swelled to tens of thousands, and then to what appeared to be hundreds of thousands. Some people sat on the neatly whitewashed curbs reading newspaper accounts of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Others stood for hours, shuffling slowly forward in the seemingly interminable line with stunned looks on their faces. But most maintained an expressionless composure -- one that seemed to convey a hint of the fatalism and acceptance of the unchangeable that is so much a part of Hinduism and Indian culture.
Beyond a maze of police barricades on the winding driveway to the portico of the Teen Murti House, the crowd became more restless as it approached the open doorway where Gandhi's body lay in state.
There, on an inclined platform, she reposed in a blanket of white and saffron marigolds in the entrance hall of the house where her father, former prime minister Nehru, lived and died.
Some wept uncontrollably, beat their chests and chanted in Hindi, "Indira Gandhi, amar rahe" ("remain immortal, Indira Gandhi"), and threw garlands of flowers at the bier.
Others shouted in Hindi, "blood for blood," and shook their fists in anger, warning anyone who would listen that the nearly 1 million Sikhs of New Delhi would not be safe from reprisals.
But most of the mourners simply looked stunned as they moved slowly toward the bier of the dead prime minister, her head framed in a simple head scarf as she lay in repose.
The viewing, which was seen by millions of other Indians over state-run television, will continue tomorrow before a massive funeral and cremation ceremony is held Saturday near Shanti Vana, where Nehru and Gandhi's youngest son, Sanjay, were cremated.
At one point, as photographers jostled with one another for a clear line of vision into the foyer, the crowd became momentarily hysterical, and women screamed in panic as police pushed mourners aside to make way for dignitaries. Diplomats and leaders of India's many political parties skirted the huge crowds and entered the house through a special security area.
When an angry crowd broke through the barricades surrounding the Nehru house, police used the boot and the lathi, or cane baton, to contain it. The acrid scent of tear gas mingled with the pungence of the mounds of flowers and wreaths.
Indian President Zail Singh, the country's leading Sikh, was among the first to place a wreath on the body, along with Vice President R. Venkataraman, and Gandhi's bitter political opponents Charan Singh, Janata Party president Chandra Shelhar and others.
While priests sitting near the body chanted scriptures of various religions, movie idol Amitabh Bachan, a close friend of the Gandhi family, his wife, and former cricket star M.A.K. Pataudi guided mourners to the bier and embraced friends and relatives.
The body had been brought to the Teen Murti House from the prime minister's official residence on a flower-bedecked gun carriage, accompanied by officials of the prime minister's sectariat.
More than 4,000 men of the Army, Navy and Air Force will line the funeral procession Saturday, while chiefs of the armed services will be the main pallbearers.