The India-Pakistan Wagah Border Closing Ceremony
I never thought that the greatest high kick I’d ever see would come from the legs of an Indian solider. Neither did I think that I would ever witness two 80-year old women have a flag race through a crowd of people. Or, in fact, hear a shouting match between two countries just feet away from each other, both standing in their own native lands
And to think I had asked my travel companions in India just hours before, ‘Why on earth would we want to go and watch a border closing ceremony?’
You would think that the ceremony held at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan would be a relatively quiet affair considering that they have to repeat the process every single day, but regardless of frequency, the two countries go all out. Shutting the border every night in anywhere else in the world isn’t that much of a big deal, but we’re talking about India and Pakistan here – there’s no such thing as low key.
The Wagah border is about 45 minutes away from Amritsar by car, and the most convenient way of getting there is by taxi, which between a number of you isn’t very expensive at all if you’ve mastered your haggling skills.
We arrived at Wagah after a treacherous ride with the boldest taxi driver on the planet, and joined the flow of thousands of Indian locals making their way down the road towards to the arena-style seating around the border. I have no idea if we had by chance chosen a particularly busy day to see the ceremony, but I had a distinct feeling that this many people do in fact watch it every single day. Whether that’s purely because of their love of India or jumping at the chance to scream at a country they dislike remains to be seen, but I would think it’s a touch of both.
After a light frisking from a security guard, a process that all attendees have to go through, we continued on the long path to the arena when we heard a guard trying to usher us away to our left. Curiosity got the better of us, and we diverted down a side road where all the other foreigners were being directed. Once this guard took a brief glance at our passports (followed by the standard, ‘Ahhh you are British! You are very good at cricket!’ – a phrase that none of us ever got tired of hearing) we were shown to a seating area right at the front of the arena, all but one block away from the borderline itself.
There’s a certain hierarchy to the seating arrangements at the border closing ceremony at Wagah. Right at the front, next to all the action, are the rich Indian families and VIPs. Next, the tourists, behind them Indian women, and at the back are the Indian men. We took our place in the second section on these giant concrete steps that rose up above an open space in the centre, as if it were Roman times and we were about to watch a lion rip a gladiator to pieces. I looked across to my right, away from the border, where the woman were gathering, and behind them the men. Never had I seen so many people in such close proximity, and the sea of colour reflected from their saris and outfits was nothing short of beautiful.
The next two hours were the hottest, and subsequently sweatiest, of my entire life to date. Due to the number of people that attend the ceremony, it takes hours for the actual process to start. In the humid and sticky July heat I sat soaking my clothing in sweat at an alarming rate – I’m sure my boyfriend at the time who was sat next to me had never found me more attractive.
Even though you have to wait for what feels like an eternity, there is some entertainment to keep you occupied. Dozens of local women gathered in the centre of the arena, and bhangra music started to blast out of the speaker system. The women danced, rejoiced, and celebrated their national pride. It’s amongst the happiest moments I’ve ever seen from a group of human beings, finding contentment in such a simple activity. Women from the tourist seating went and danced with the local women, and were warmly welcomed into the fold.
Next, two giant India flags on poles were presented to the women, and they held running races to the border gates and back, holding these flags. At first it began as teenage girls who whizzed through the crowds, but as the races went one the age of the competitors got older and older. The final battle was held between two women who must have been at least 80 years old. I compared it to what I would imagine my two grandmothers would look like if they had such a competition, and could only picture a tremendous amount of hobbling and wheezing. These women flew through the crowds, their colourful saris flowing out behind them, and the Indian flags they were holding whipped in the wind of their wake. I could only think one thing – these chicks are badass.
After hours of perspiring and watching the women, the ceremony itself begins. Army officials came out of the buildings and into the arena, dressed in what could be considered a fairly conventional army uniform – aside from the huge red fans upon their heads. I looked over at the Pakistani side and saw that they had silver version of the same thing, and admittedly I preferred their take on what must be standard army attire in this part of the world. (Shhh, don’t tell India that.)
More marching than could possibly be necessary ensues, as well as this high kicking I mentioned at the start of this post. One guard, who can only assume was top dog in this situation as no one else seemed to be allowed to pull such moves, marched up and down past a row of his peers, hurled his legs as high as he possibly could in front of him, and damn could that guy high kick. I’m pretty sure he could have kissed his own knees. The jaws of each and every spectator in the tourist section crashed to the floor; I don’t know what kind of yoga this soldier must have been doing, but sign me up, pronto.
After a shouting match between the two countries that was once again an element of the ceremony which seemed to go on far longer than it really needed to, the gates between the two countries were opened. The two groups of soldiers from each country perform their own Haka-espque performance, a series of calculated moves intended on putting the fear of God into the other. This goes on until finally one senior soldier from each country comes up to the line where the two countries collide, and, in the fading light of dusk, shake hands quicker than you can even blink. The flags flying in each country and lowered, and the border gates are closed.
Michael Palin once described the border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan as ‘carefully choreographed contempt’, and even though I didn’t personally see that much obvious hatred at the ceremony, it has to be said that there is definitely a passive aggressive element to it. However, to this day I still feel like for both India and Pakistan it is more about loving your own country than hating another. And who can kick the highest, of course.