CALCUTTA, India -- Sir Edmund Hillary, his head bowed at the funeral pyre, paid his last respects Wednesday to Tenzing Norgay, the 'Tiger of the Snows' Sherpa guide who helped him scale Mount Everest in the first conquest of the world's highest peak.
'It is a sad moment,' Hillary said. 'Tenzing's death is a personal loss to me. He was a great man and a great climber.'
Witnesses and officials said hundreds of people lined the streets of Darjeeling, about 320 miles north of Calcutta, as a military jeep carried Tenzing's silk-covered coffin through the Himalayan town where he died of a chronic lung ailment on May 9. Tenzing's birthdate is unknown but he is believed to have been 72 years old.
Thousands of others walked silently behind the flower-bedecked jeep along the 2 -mile route from Tenzing's home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where Tenzing, a member of the Sherpa tribe of the Tibetan people living on the high slopes of the Himalayas, had taught aspiring mountain climbers.
At the institute, Tenzing's body was placed atop a funeral pyre amid the clashing of cymbals and the drone of funeral hymns chanted by Buddhist priests.
His three sons, accompanied by their mother, Daku, and two sisters, then set the pyre ablaze as soldiers sounded taps for the 'Tiger of the Snows.'
Hillary, now New Zealand's ambassador to India, bowed his head in memory of Tenzing, who helped the New Zealand farmer climb the 29,029-foot summit of Everest on May 29, 1953, in man's first conquest of the world's highest peak. The two became instant international celebrities.
News of the conquest of Everest was deliberately delayed as a coronation gift for Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, who was crowned June 2, 1953.
Attending the funeral Wednesday was Ian Gass, deputy head of the British consulate in Calcutta, who carried a message to Tenzing's family from Queen Elizabeth II offering 'Her Majesty's sincere condolences on their sad loss.'
Hillary was knighted by the queen for his accomplishment. Tenzing won a chestful of medals and decorations, including Nepal's highest civilian award, the Star of Nepal, and Britain's prestigious George Medal.
But the illiterate guide continued to live in Darjeeling, where he migrated from Nepal at age 15.
Tenzing's funeral coincided with the last day of a three-day strike called by the Ghurka National Liberation Front, an organization of ethnic Nepalese pressing for an independent state. Members of the front joined the procession.