Every late afternoon, just before sunset, the Indian and Pakistani military meet at the border to engage in an extraordinary 20-minute ceremony of pure theatre. The border-closing ceremony elicits machismo and posturing from the proud young soldiers on both sides, but also, despite the two countries’ uneasy relationship, a stunning display of harmony. It starts around 5.30pm in summer and 4.30pm in winter. It’s worth getting there early – though avoid the stampede when the crowd charges along the chicken run leading to the grandstands. Foreigners are allowed to sit at the front in the VIP area anyways – or, better, grab a seat at the roadside near the gate, right in front of the high-kicking action.
At this point the young soldiers are milling about with their air of self-conscious debutantes and the real action is in the people who run at the border gates carrying a huge Indian flag. A compere stokes the crowd’s patriotic fervor, as they cry “Hindustan Zindabad” (long-live India). The Pakistanis are equally vociferous, except during Ramadan, when the stands are noticeably quieter, and are segregated by sex.
Families arrive with picnic baskets. Parents are heard asking the children to remain patient and wait for the “spectacle” to begin. There’s an air of excitement though. And then it begins. Soldiers from both countries march in perfect drill, going through the steps of bringing down their respective national flags. But the striking feature of the occasion is not the smart drill, but the attempt to outdo each other in showing their anger and contempt against each other. Soldiers raise their boots to show the soles to others across the border, chests are puffed out and touch others’ when they come face to face, and feet are stamped hard. The soldiers adopted every conceivable gesture to show their hatred in a most unsoldier like manner. The crass shouts of joy from the crowds on both sides are even more disheartening. People are cheering the soldiers as if they were gladiators. Ordinary men and women are turned into ferocious warriors wanting to rush to the defense of their respective countries. Faces flushed, the people behave as if in a tantric trance. Each shout of command, louder than the previous, further enhance the atmosphere of hatred.
The gates flung open and the commanding officers march up to each other and perform a brief handshake and salute. Then the guard parties goose-step to the border and wheel to face their flags, the Indian and Pakistani soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder, their black-and-red and green, red & gold uniforms only centimeters apart. Bugles blow and the flags are lowered slowly, diplomatically remaining at the same level. The flags are quickly folded and marched back to their respective guardrooms. The border – separating western Punjab from an area that, until 1947, was also a part of the state is closed to the public now.
People come to the border, 30 km west of Amritsar, for two enjoy the late afternoon border-crossing ceremony or to use the only crossing between India and Pakistan. Buses travel from Amritsar to Attari village – Rs 15, 1.25 hours – and then an autorickshaw will take you from there to the border for Rs 15. Taxis from Amritsar to the border (one way or return) cost Rs 450 and take an hour, while autorickshaws charge Rs 200. Shared jeeps also run to the border-closing ceremony from the dining-hall entrance to the Golden Temple. They leave about two hours before the ceremony starts and return afterwards.
NOTE: These tips are for visitors who are visiting from the Indian side of the Wagah border.
1. If you’re hiring a taxi to visit the border from Amritsar, always haggle with the taxi drivers as they may charge higher rates, especially if you’re a non-Indian. Make sure to check with some locals there on the going prices and do not pay a penny more.
2. There’s a long line to enter the seating area before the ceremony starts, so make sure to arrive at least 2 hours prior.
3. VIP seating is available if you have any “connections” with the BSF (Border Security Force). If you get a VIP seating then you are very close to the border gates and probably in the front row seats. Moreover, you don’t have to stand in the line and your driver can park your car up ahead, inside the chambers. Check with your hotel on how you can get the VIP seating. Some hotels may be able to offer you this for a minimal price. Foreigners are allowed to sit at the front in the VIP area.
4. You are not allowed to carry a whole bunch of stuff in the ceremony area, which includes bags, purses (small purses for cash is allowed), firearms, food items, etc. Cellphones, water bottles, cameras are allowed. Do not leave your cash and wallets in the car, make sure to carry them with you.