India's revered former sprinter Milkha Singh has died of COVID-19 aged 91 ©Getty Images

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has paid fulsome tribute to the country’s sprint legend Milkha Singh - known as “The Flying Sikh” - who has died aged 91 after a month-long battle with COVID-19.

"In the passing away of Shri Milkha Singh Ji, we have lost a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation's imagination and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians," Modi tweeted amidst national mourning following the announcement of his death in hospital last night. 

"His inspiring personality endeared himself to millions.

"Anguished by his passing away."

Singh competed at three Olympic Games, placing fourth over 400 metres in 1960, and his national record of 45.73sec stood for 38 years.

He was also a three-times Asian Games champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

While Milkha was receiving treatment in a Chandigarh hospital he lost his wife Nirmal Kaur, a former national volleyball captain, to the same ailment.

He is survived by his golfer son Jeev Milkha Singh and three daughters.

Asian Games and Commonwealth men’s javelin champion Neeraj Chopra tweeted: "We lost a Gem.

"He will always remain as an inspiration for every Indian.

"May his soul Rest in peace."

Sachin Tendulkar, India's most famous cricketer, also paid tribute to Singh on his Twitter page, which has 35.5 million followers. 

"Your demise has left a deep void in every Indian’s heart today, but you shall keep inspiring several generations to come," Tendulkar wrote.

The Sports Authority of India expressed "immense sadness at the demise of one of India's greatest ever sportspersons 'The Flying Sikh', Milkha Singh."

Born in the village of Govindpura, which is now part of Pakistan, Singh became an orphan after his parents and three siblings were killed during the Partition of India.

Singh fled the area and moved to Delhi, but never fully settled, serving a stint in jail for petty crime and later joining a refugee camp and a resettlement colony.

He was persuaded by his brother to join the Army and it was during his time there, in the early 1950s, that he was introduced to athletics.

He made swift progress and in 1956, at the age of 21, was selected to represent India at the Melbourne Olympics, in 1956 where he ran in the 200m and 400m heats.

Two years later he won the 200m and 400m titles at the Asian Games, and the 440 yards gold at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

Milkha Singh, far left, narrowly missed winning an Olympic medal in the 400 metres at Rome 1960, finishing fourth ©Getty Images
Milkha Singh, far left, narrowly missed winning an Olympic medal in the 400 metres at Rome 1960, finishing fourth ©Getty Images

At the 1960 Rome Olympics he was fourth in the 400m final, 0.13 seconds behind South Africa's bronze medallist Malcolm Spence and 0.67 behind United States’ winner Otis Davis, but was rewarded with his longstanding national record.

Singh successfully defended his Asian Games 400m title in 1962 and anchored India to victory in the 4x400m setting a Games record of 3min 10.2sec.

He went on to compete at a third Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, taking part in the heats of the 4x400m.

A widely acclaimed and commercially successful Bollywood film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag based on Singh’s life won five awards in 2014 at the International Indian Film Academy Awards.

Singh sold the movie rights for one rupee but inserted a clause stating that a share of the profits would be given to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust he had founded in 2003 with the aim of assisting poor and needy sportspeople

Earlier this month India mourned the passing through COVID-19 of another revered nonagenarian athlete, Surat Singh Mathur,  an Asian Games bronze medallist and the first athlete from independent India to complete an Olympic marathon race, which he did at Helsinki 1952.