A 45 minute drive by shared taxi from Amritsar (the most convenient way of getting to the border), is the Wagah border between India and Pakistan; site of the world famous border closing ceremony. You would think, as in almost every other part of the world, that the closing of the border gates and lowering of the countries flags would be a non event, but not here, not between two nations recently created with such historic animosity and keen to prove their superiority.
Despite the undercurrent of tensions between the predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan and Hindu India, the ceremony is a thoroughly enjoyable, elaborately choreographed and comical display. Each group of border guards attempts to out-shout, out-march and out–stanch the other, all while the Indian announcer incites the crowd with calls of “Hindustan!” The Pakistani crowd, aroused by their elderly flag bearer, is just as passionate but in far fewer numbers (reminded me of the disparity between North and South Korea).
My travel buddy Marius and I arrived at Wagah and joined literally thousands of Indian locals in the arena-style seating adjacent to the border. It’s remarkable that so many people attend the ceremony on a daily basis, so don’t be late or you’ll likely miss out. If you’re lucky, being a tourist, the authorities will see to it that you get preferred seating towards the front, near the area reserved for the women. And don’t be surprised if you strike up conversations with friendly locals either, as many who come to view the ceremony are families or curious educated types, keen to practice their English and ask about your travels and country.
The ceremony itself starts before sunset, so if you’ve arrived several hours early (to be assured a seat) that’s not a problem because to help pass the time many of the local women are invited onto the road to dance and celebrate their relative freedom (even flaunt it I assume) to Indian music being played. Other activities and games follow involving the women which made the time pass a lot quicker.
The ceremony begins in a fairly low-key manner with the respective soldiers leaving the border security building, dressed in stylish yet traditional army uniform, with the addition of the red fans on their caps; reminiscent of a bird of paradise’s extravagant bloomage! The Pakistani soldiers wore similar, but black attire. Images of which you can see when I attended the ceremony a second time, but from the Pakistani side when I travelled there.Exuberant marching (reminiscent of Monty Pythons Ministry of Silly Walks) ensues complete with high kicking (feet well above their heads) and feet stomping. Although I recently read this practice has been mutually agreed to end on account of the soldiers apparently complaining of ‘knee and foot injuries’ (on account of the ferocity of the motions). Some believe this is merely a convenient excuse in an attempt to ‘deescalate’ the aggressive nature of the ceremony. However the shouting, matched on either side of the gate, is still carried out while music is played.
The ceremony eventually concludes after about 30 minutes with a brief shaking of hands and each country’s flag carefully lowered in unison to ensure neither is ever higher than the other throughout the lowering procedure. Finally the carefully choreographed ceremony finishes with the border gates being slammed closed.
Considering these nations were split on a religious basis, I can’t help but feel this spectacle, as entertaining as it is, is merely two religions basically taunting one another. A border guard we happen to sit next to on a bus trip, assured us beneath all the hype they weren’t secretly friends with their counterparts which I sort of wanted to believe. A little worrying these nuclear nations are taunting each other considering they have already fought two wars over disputed areas, and in the light of the continued bombings and terrorist attacks that attempt to incite a third.