Relations between India and Pakistan have been tense for a long time. Both parts of the former British India, they were divided upon their independence more-or-less along religious line: Muslims in Pakistan and Hindus in India. The nations have fought wars against each other and put the world on edge by becoming nuclear powers.
Near Amritsar is the Wagah border crossing, which was for decades the only land crossing open between the two nations. Daily at sunset India and Pakistan hold a ceremony for the lowering of their flags at this crossing. How do these two rivals show their patriotism as their colors are lowered? With coordinated dance fighting, of course.
The Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers have been lowering the flags at the Wagah border crossing in a ceremony every day since 1959. Over time it has become an elaborate spectacle. Both nations have little amphitheaters overlooking the road up to the gate between the two countries. Spectators, both foreign and domestic, crowd into the stands each day to cheer on their soldiers. Soldiers on both sides are clad in national colors and wear outrageously silly hats with large fan spreads, a bit like heavily armed peacocks. When it's their turn, each soldier yells as loudly (and as long) as possible into the microphone and then marches aggressively to the flags at the border gate, stomping their legs and swinging their arms with military fervor. When they reach the gate, each guard gives a proud scowl to the guards across the gate and kicks up his leg. The higher the leg kick, the more nationalistic machismo it shows off to the other side.
No cars are allowed up to the border itself, so to get to the ceremony you have to have a cab drop you off about a kilometer from Pakistan and walk the rest of the way. The road to the border is lined with soldiers armed and at attention and security checks are frequent (I was patted down three times.) The carnival atmosphere is abundant, however, as along the way you encounter vendors selling miniature flags, roasted peanuts and popcorn. The security is serious, so serious in fact that Tori's popcorn was confiscated, but everyone else is getting ready to enjoy the show.
The ceremony has become quite the festive occasion for the spectators. It felt like a wild, militarized, and yet totally absurd sporting event with die hard fans cheering for their team. Music blasts over loud speakers before the event begins and people crowd the road to dance and sing in the street with nationalistic fervor.
When it's time for the show to begin, soldiers clear the streets and the crowd takes their seats. We made a compilation video of the highlights of the day. Watching the video will do a much better job of sharing the experience than I would trying to explain it to you. I suggest you watch and see what we saw. The video includes the pre-show dance party, the emcee (yes, the emcee) coming out and stirring up the crowed, the marching of the Indians and Pakistanis to the gate and dance fighting, and the lowering of the flags.
In the video, look out for:
- The white jump suit clad emcee leading the chant of "Hindustan!" (As opposed to Pakistan).
- The giant portraits above the gates of each arena. Gandhi sits above the Indian gate.
- How the higher you kick, the better you are marching. Aim for your own face!
- The nearly empty Pakistan arena. We have seen photos and video of the Pakistan side as full as the Indian side. We suspect that it is so empty because in November 2014 a suicide bomber killed 60 people near the Wagah border on the Pakistani side. The bomb went off nearly 600 meters from the arena as security prevented the bomber from getting any closer.
- The return chants of "Pakistan!" from the Pakistani side of the gate.
- The Indian and Pakistani buglers' attempts to be in sync...
The entire event lasts about an hour. There is a fair amount of watching the soldiers stand and face the other side while pumping their arms in the air.
At the end of the ceremony both sides clear out and let the crowd run to the gate. People on both sides peer through the iron at the other nation and take photos of the foreign nationals on the other side.
The BBC did an excellent segment on the border ceremony. If you'd like a better view of the festivities and more explanations, you can check out the video on YouTube.
On the way out we saw that you could buy a commemorative video of the event, complete with a pirated copy of the Olympic theme by John Williams as the score!
The border ceremony had more energy than anything else we saw in India. It was a lot of fun. It felt like an opportunity to see Indians letting loose a bit. While one might argue that it might not be the best things for two longstanding nuclear equipped rivals to be shaking military fists at each other on a daily basis while their people cry out trying to drown out their neighbor, I think it's probably a good thing. Better dance fighting than actual fighting.
And remember, if your not kicking yourself in the face, then it's not for Mother India.