New Delhi - Plagued by charges of corruption, security fears and shambolic organisation, the 19th Commonwealth Games threw off the shackles of its chaotic lead-up Sunday to stage a spectacular opening ceremony.
Watched by a crowd of almost 60 000 at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi, with a worldwide television audience of more than a billion, the launch was billed as bringing "India alive" for the 11-day sporting showpiece.
Prince Charles declared the Games open after receiving a relay baton that had travelled some 170 000 km to all the Commonwealth nations, most of them former British colonies, before arriving in India.
"I have much pleasure in declaring the 19th Commonwealth Games open," the prince said after thousands of the Games' 7 000 participating athletes had paraded around the ground.
The tightly-drilled spectacle - far from the epic which kicked off the Beijing Olympics but as fastidiously organised - marked a stark contrast to the build-up, when the Indian capital suffered weeks of disastrous headlines.
Teams arrived to find the athletes' village unfinished and filthy, a new footbridge next to the main stadium collapsed injuring dozens of workers, and concerns about health, security and transport have also been high.
But from the first crackle of applause to the singalong grand finale more than three hours later, it was clear some chastening lessons had been learnt as more than 6,000 performers showcased 5 000 years of India's history and culture.
The crowd was not so keen, however, when it came to forgiving Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the organising committee and the face of the troubled Games, whose speech was greeted by an angry chorus of jeers.
The ceremony kicked off as the Delhi skies darkened with Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of York, introduced to the crowd before drummers beat out the "rhythm of India" accompanied by traditional Shankha trumpeters.
Keshav, a seven-year-old prodigy tabla player from southeastern India, led 100 tribal drummers in a percussion section as applause from a rapturous audience built to a crescendo.
The "Aerostat", a reportedly $9m white helium-filled balloon, rose 25m above the ground as the show began.
The balloon housed cameras, laser projectors and mirrors providing a 360-degree viewing experience as nearly 3 000 fireworks danced around the rim of the stadium and lit up the Delhi sky.
According to local media reports, India has spent nearly $34m on the opening and closing ceremonies, enlisting an army of choreographers, designers, producers, suppliers, consultants, engineers and administrators.
Athletes from the 71 competing nations paraded around the stadium, moving to their seats before the Queen's Baton was brought in and handed to the prince, who read out a message from the Queen.
"It is particularly fitting that the 2010 Commonwealth Games is being held in India," the message said, referring to the celebrations marking 60 years of Indian independence and its birth as a sovereign nation in 1947.
"I firmly believe that when countries can compete in sports together like this, it helps all nations to search together for peace throughout the world," it added.
"To everyone, I send my very best wishes for what I hope will be the experience of a lifetime."
The Games played homage to the guru-shishya tradition with musicians and classical dancers gathering under the Aerostat before yoga performers spread out across the arena bathed in amber light, wowing the crowd with athletic poses.
A procession of wedding guests, mystics and artisans, a human train, tuk-tuk drivers and thousands of folk dancers celebrated India's diverse cultural heritage before the final act - Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" composer AR Rahman singing the self-penned theme song of the sporting extravaganza.
The Games will feature 16 sports, with England and Australia expected to dominate the medals tally.
About two million tickets were put on sale for the multi-sport Games, but rumours have long circulated in the capital that the response has been lacklustre amid delays in finalising the sales network.