Kaleidoscopic images of India's rich cultural diversity and the might of its military were on full display on the magnificent Rajpath in New Delhi on Monday as the nation celebrated its 60th Republic Day amid an unprecedented security cover.
An impressive and colourful parade, a traditional attraction of the national event, marched down the thoroughfare connecting the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the historic India Gate as President Pratibha Patil took the salute from marching contingents.
Armed forces in battle regalia proudly marching before their supreme commander, scintillating show of air power, fascinating tableaux depicting the diverse culture and hundreds of colourfully-dressed dancing school children were part of the parade.
The march-past was watched by the Republic Day chief guest Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Vice President Hamid Ansari, Defence Minister A K Antony and the country's top political and military brass, including UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, besides a large enthusiastic crowd that had gathered on either sides of the Rajpath.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is recuperating from his bypass surgery in All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Antony performed all the customary duties of the Prime Minister during the Republic Day celebration.
Minutes before the parade began, Antony and chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force laid wreaths at 'Amar Jawan Jyoti', the British-era World War-I memorial at India Gate, where an eternal flame burns in memory of those who laid down their lives while defending the nation's frontiers.
Patil and her Kazakh counterpart arrived at the Rajpath escorted by the President's bodyguards riding well-trained, impeccably-bedecked horses.
Antony received the President and the nation's guest at the saluting dais in the absence of the Prime Minister.
A massive ground-to-air security apparatus was put in place in the national capital to prevent any 9/11-type terror attack, which the intelligence agencies had warned of. Snipers of the National Security Guards (NSG) were deployed at all high-rises all along the parade route.
The unfurling of the tricolour by Patil and playing of the national anthem by military bands was followed by a customary 21-gun salute by 299 Field Regiment.
Maharashtra Police ATS chief Hemant Karkare, Additional Commissioner Ashok Kamte and four others -- killed fighting Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai -- were among 11 security personnel who received the Ashok Chakra, the country's highest peace-time gallantry medal.
Following this, the parade began, as four Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force flew past with the national flag as well as those of the three defence services slinging below.
The first to appear in the parade were winners of the Param Vir Chakra and Ashok Chakra followed by mounted columns of the 61st Cavalry by Lieutenant Colonel Navjit Singh Sandhu.
Major General KJS Oberoi, General Officer Commanding of Delhi Area of the Army, led the parade.
The Army then showcased its impressive armoury before the nation, including frontline T-90S battle tanks, indigenous Brahmos missile, OSA-AK system, the most modern and versatile air defence weapon.
The Chariot of Victory -- the state of the art infantry combat vehicle, the bullet proof vehicle Takshak Striker and the Network Operations Centre, which is capable of providing high quality information services in various terrains, were also showcased.
The indigenously-built Advanced Light Helicopter 'Dhruv' of Army Aviation was also displayed.
Then colourfully-attired military contingents made their entry into the Rajpath.
The Army contingent included personnel drawn from the Parachute Regiment, Maratha Light Infantry Regiment, Rajput Regiment, Garhwal Rifles, Kumaon Regiment, Jammu and Kashmir Rifled, Ladakh Scouts, and Territorial Army (Punjab).
Smartly-dressed Navy personnel came along with a tableau depicting a model of INS Jalashwa, the replenishment vessel acquired in 2007 from the US to provide India major amphibious warfare capabilities.
The naval team comprising 144 men drawn from three Commands of the Navy was led by Lt Commander Anshul Awasthi.
The IAF displayed its air power in the form of a tableau showcasing some of its recent acquisitions including 'Hawk' Advanced Jet Trainer and SU 30 MKI air superiority fighter aircraft and the indigenous Rohini 3D radar. Its tableau was modeled on the IL-76 aircraft-mounted Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) that India purchased from Israelis. However, the system is yet to be inducted into the IAF.
The 148-strong IAF contingent, led by Squadron Leader Robinder Singh Zenda marched to the tunes of "Air Warrior".
The DRDO columns included Brahmos missile, advanced air defence missile, Akash surface-to-air missile and Agni-III ballistic missile.
Other contingents to march in the parade included veterans from the three services led by 85-year-old World War-II Flying Officer M M Shukla, Border Security Force's foot soldiers and their camel units, Assam Rifles, Coast Guard, CRPF, ITBP, CISF, Sashastra Seema Bal, RPF and the Delhi Police.
Bands from all these armed forces and paramilitary forces played martial tunes, as also the massed pipes and drums from several Army regiments.
Among the youth contingents were the NCC's senior division boys and girls cadets, along with their band, and the National Service Scheme.
The vibrant diversity of the country's traditional art and culture, industrial progress, scientific development and rich natural resources came alive when 18 tableaux, representing 12 states and six union ministries/departments rolled along the Rajpath.
The colourful state tableaux were led by Andhra Pradesh, which was a tribute to legendary saint Annamacharya followed by Assam which depicted the state's rich wildlife in its splendour.
Then came Madhya Pradesh which was a ode to a tribal leader, the local Robinhood, who was hanged by the British for being an anti-social.
Other states that followed were Kerala, Orissa and Rajasthan.
Jammu and Kashmir's tableau depicted a model of a monastery in Ladakh with monks dancing in their traditional costumes. The dance was followed by a luxurious house boat, on which 35 Kashmiri boys and girls sang folk songs accompanied by traditional musical instruments like rabab, nut, sarangi and tumbaknari.
Uttarakhand projected adventure tourism like river rafting, paragliding, trekking and rock climbing while Rajasthan depicted wildlife of Ranthambore National Park.
The famous Gair dance of Ranthambore was performed by 25 folk dancers wearing colourful and traditional attires and headgear at the front of the tableau.
This year the total number of tableaux was 18 against last year's 26.
The department of Science and Technology in its tableau presented the advancements made by India in the field of astronomy.
The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore designed the tableau. The UN declared 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy to celebrate 400 years of the first use of telescope by Italian astronomer Galileo.
As the tableaux turned the corner, the little heroes who won the national bravery awards made their entry on decorated jeeps instead of elephants. Twenty children, including one posthumously, have been honoured with the award for exemplary courage.
The other states which presented their tableaux at the parade, included Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Orissa, Kerala, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Maharastra.
The Assam tableau conceptualised the famous Kaziranga National Park, the ideal habitat for the one-horned rhino while the Bihar tableau showcased Mithila's historical folk culture of "Saurath Sabha" and "Madhubani" paintings.
The Bihar tableau presented a unique and lively glimpse of marriage ceremony of "Saurath Sabha" which is quite popular in the eastern region.
The Maharashtra tableau presented the lives of Dhangar community from hilly region of Miraj, Kolhapur and Solapur which constitute an important segment of the social fabric of the state.
Kerala presented the colourful annual temple festival of Pooram, which is held after the summer harvest in Trissur and Palakkad districts.
The tableau had 12 ornately decorated dummy elephants accompanied by music called Melam.
Performers wearing traditional attire of soldiers bearing colourful shields and swords danced to the war-like steps in perfect orchestration.
The theme of Madhya Pradesh revolved around Tantya Bhil, who was one of the great revolutionaries who waged an armed struggle against the British rule for 12 years and endeared himself to the masses by virtue of his indomitable courage and passion.
Indian Railways showcased the prestigious Jammu to Baramulla new rail link in its tableau while Ministry of Power will highlight village electrification.
Unlike previous years, there was no elephant ride for the bravery award winning children because of "security reasons".
A colourful tableau on women's empowerment followed this.
Then came song and dance performances by North East Zone Cultural Centre followed by the dare devil motorcycle team of the Corps of Signals which performed some breathtaking stunts.
As the dare devils left, all eyes were towards the skies as IAF fighter jets roared over their heads.
The stupendous fly past, with precision and high speeds, included the Mi-35 armed choppers, the IL-76 transporters along with An-32s and Dorniers, and the IL-78 air-to-air refueller that can extend the range of fighters midair along with its Su 30 MKI fighter components.
These flying machines apart other fighters to fly over the Delhi skies were deep penetration strike fighters Jaguars and MiG-29s, and Su 30 MKI's performing their signature 'Trishul' formation.
The year's parade went on for a curtailed duration of about one-and-half hours in view of the security situation in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks. This year, the Defence Ministry allowed only two performances by school children.
Image: Armed forces in battle regalia proudly marching before their supreme commander.
Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters