New Delhi: Hundreds of men, women and children donning thick woollens braved the morning winter chill to watch India's military prowess and diverse cultural heritage on display at the 69th Republic Day parade at Rajpath.
A blanket of thick fog that engulfed the city in the morning and tight security restrictions didn`t deter the enthusiasts from venturing out to gather at Rajpath, literary meaning King`s Way - a ceremonial boulevard that runs from Rashtrapati Bhavan on Raisina Hill to India Gate.
The parade, a showcase of an impeccable display of might by the Armed Forces and India`s soft power, this year had many firsts to its credit.
India for the first time after becoming a republic invited 10 guests of honour - heads of state or government from the 10 ASEAN countries.
Sporting a multi-coloured turban with a long free-flowing end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the 10 ASEAN guests personally, inviting them to the stage where the who`s who of the government, including President Ram Nath Kovind and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, were seated.
Another first, and a thrilling one at that, was the sight of women BSF officers riding 350cc Royal Enfield motorcycles, performing acrobatics and daredevil stunts with panache along the Rajpath.
In another first, Rudra armed helicopters were part of the flypast, in addition to the roaring IAF fighter jets.
There were sombre moments as well. Kovind awarded the Ashoka Chakra - India`s highest peace-time gallantry decoration - posthumously to Air Force Commando J.P. Nirala, who lost his life in Jammu and Kashmir fighting a group of terrorists in a north Kashmir village in November last.
Earlier, Modi led the nation in paying homage to the fallen soldier. He laid a wreath at the eternal flame at the Amar Jawan Jyoti to commemorate the courage of India`s Armed Forces personnel, killed in the line of duty.
The Amar Jawan, the immortal soldier, is symbolised by a reversed rifle standing on its barrel and crested by a soldier`s helmet at the war memorial.
A two-minute silence observed at the Amar Jawan Jyoti by Modi, saw a hush descend on the Rajpath before it came abuzz with the footsteps of marching soldiers, whirring sounds of moving vehicles carrying prototypes of defence equipment, and folksongs played on tableaux of various states, and government ministries and departments displaying their achievements.
The daredevil stunts of the women BSF officers, who came riding on 26 350cc Royal Enfield motorcycles, were a real head turner.
A loud cheer went up as the `Seema Bhawani` women`s contingent performed stunts like a `Peacock` shape on one bike, `Fish riding`, `Four Harmony`, `Sapt Rishi`, `Brahma yog Guldasta (lotus formation)`, `Seema Prahari` and `Flag March Pyramid`. It was the first all-women contingent from any force to perform biking stunts.
All heads turned towards the sky during the grand finale - a spectacular flypast by the IAF`s flying machines that performed aerobatic manoeuvers over Rajpath.
After the event concluded, Prime Minister Modi walked down a few metres along Rajpath -- like he had last year -- waving towards the crowd.
During the parade, Delhi`s main promenade came alive showcasing India`s latest initiatives and achievements along with its rich diverse social and cultural heritage, as the enthusiastic crowd, holding tri-colour balloons, clapped loudly and cheered to mark the day India adopted its Constitution 68 years ago.
"The enthusiasm to watch the parade never dies. It is a moment of pride," said Sitanshu Rathi, 50, a Delhi government employee. He claimed he has never missed the Republic Day parade in the last 25 years.
"It makes me feel more secure every time our armed forces showcase how they are securing our boundaries. It is a moment of pride to see how diverse this country is and is yet a seamless single entity. We have to preserve it and display this pride to the world," he told IANS.
Around the parade venue, the city had literally turned into a fortress with special security teams, anti-aircraft guns and snipers deployed to keep a vigil on the eight-km path from Rajpath to Red Fort.
Hundreds of CCTV cameras and drones kept a close watch on people`s movements along the route. Nearly 60,000 security personnel from the Delhi Police and central security forces were deployed in central Delhi.