The long process of electing a new Indian parliament has begun, with the first of 714 million voters going to the polls in the world's largest exercise of democracy.
Early voters in Varanasi had to queue to cast their ballot
The election will take place in five stages over the next month, but it is not expected to produce a stable government. Neither of the country's two main parties - the incumbent Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - is seen as capable of securing an absolute majority.
In this first phase, which began on Thursday, over 140 million people are registered to vote in large parts of northern and eastern India, including some areas affected by violent insurgencies. In the eastern state of Jharkhand Maoist rebels killed six soldiers who were on duty to protect polling stations.
Other sensitive regions voting on the first day include areas of Kashmir near the Pakistan border and north-eastern states on the frontier with Bangladesh.
To ensure security, more than two million security personnel will be rotated around the country over the five phases of balloting which end on May 13. Final results will be announced on May 16.
Analysts say that regional and local parties are expected to win up to half the 543 seats, leading to horse-trading over the formation of a government coalition. The two main parties are expected to lose support.
A new grouping made up of left-leaning and regional parties is running under the title "Third Front," and is seen as the only viable alternative.
The Third Front is negotiating with Mayawati Kumari, a self-styled champion of the lower castes who hopes to become India's first prime minister from an "untouchable" caste.
The election comes as India deals with an economic slowdown which has cost millions of jobs. It's feared that a weak government will not be able to take the tough actions necessary to deal with the economic crisis.