MADRAS, INDIA, DEC. 24 -- India's top Tamil leader died in his sleep today, and his death prompted rioting and suicides in southern India that left at least five people dead, police said.

Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, 70, who was chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, suffered cardiac arrest at 1 a.m. local time and was declared dead two hours later, said state Finance Minister V.R. Nedunchezhiyan.

Nedunchezhiyan was later sworn in as interim chief minister.

Police in Tamil Nadu were given shoot-on-sight orders after mobs burned shops and buses and attacked a movie theater in Madras. The rioting appeared to have begun as an expression of grief, as there were no rumors alleging foul play in Ramachandran's death.

"I have asked my men to shoot the rioters on sight. This is the only way we can check violence," Police Commissioner Walter Dawaram told reporters.

Two persons were killed by mobs in downtown Madras and one of 11 persons injured by police gunfire died at a hospital, a police officer in the control center said. He said the mobs looted shops and set fire to three buses.

United News of India said two persons committed suicide because of grief over Ramachandran's death. The suicides occurred in the Thanjavur district, 175 miles south of Madras.

Ramachandran, affectionately known as "MGR," was a popular movie actor before 1977 when he was elected Tamil Nadu's chief minister, a post similar to that of governor.

His Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party is closely aligned with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party (I).

Ramachandran was a central figure in efforts to end the guerrilla war by Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India. Tamil Nadu state, which is just 20 miles from Sri Lanka, is home to about 50 million Indian Tamils.

Ramachandran was born Jan. 17, 1917, on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka's central Kandy district. Reports from Kandy said plantation laborers in the area stopped work to mark his death.

The Indian Tamils' sympathy for their Sri Lankan counterparts was the prime reason for India's sponsorship of a peace accord to end the four-year Tamil war in Sri Lanka. After the July 29 signing, India sent troops to Sri Lanka to enforce the treaty.

Ramachandran had met Gandhi in New Delhi last week, and newspapers reported he was lobbying for a truce in Sri Lanka.

The chief minister, who had a stroke in 1984, stumbled on the dais when Gandhi was in Madras, the state capital, earlier this week, and political rivals had suggested that his poor health would affect his ability to govern. Many of Ramachandran's public addresses had been delivered by colleagues because he had a speech defect after the stroke.

Gandhi and President Ramaswamy Venkataraman went to Madras to offer condolences.