After the intensity of the Holi experience, a little bit of peace and quiet would surely be welcomed. And one could expect that my next destination would provide some as I was heading to a border-closing ceremony that is held daily. What could be more quiet and uneventful than a daily mundane border-closing ceremony? Indeed, one might wonder why the closing of the border at the end of the day would call for a ceremony at all. But this is India, and even the closing of a border-crossing can be turned into a theatrical event drawing large enthusiastic and patriotic crowds, all chanting Hindustan zindabad (Long Live India). Welcome to the Wagah border “Beating the Retreat” ceremony!
Located 32 km from Amristar (India) and 24 km from the Pakistani city of Lahore, the Wagah border is the only place to cross the border by land between the two countries. There, every evening just before sunset, the flags of both countries are lowered and their respective iron gates are closed as members of the Indian Border Security Force and of the Pakistan Rangers try to impress and frighten each other in a well-choreographed drill. This event is so popular that grandstands have been erected to accommodate the patriotic masses on both sides of the border.
The two countries are separated by ornate iron gates and on their respective side both India and Pakistan have impressive gateway structures facing each other and adorned with pictures of their revered former leaders (Mahatma Gandhi for India and Muhammad Ali Jinnah for Pakistan.) Before the official ceremonies start, on the Indian side, women and children, many with the flags of India drawn on their cheeks, offer to demonstrate their patriotic fervor by dancing in front of the India Gateway. (It looked like so much fun that I briefly joined their dancing, albeit without the make-up.) Later, as the sun sets, goose-stepping border guards from both countries in full ceremonial uniform parade to the iron gates two at a time (starting with two women) and taunt each other in dramatic style. Guards on both sides are sporting impressive cockscomb hats reminiscent of a peacock displaying its feather. The border guards show off their agility (and flexible hamstrings) by kicking their legs up at impressive heights, demonstrate their strength by flexing their biceps, and portray their meanness by looking at their counterparts with mean looks of obvious contempt. This all ends with the flags being lowered down, the guards shaking hands abruptly, and the gates closing. The flags are then taken back to their respective side to the delight of the crowds. If I had to assess the performance of both sides, I would give higher grades to the Indian guards leg kicking, but the Pakistani score higher on looking mean, perhaps aided by their black uniforms.
I have seen this ceremony twice now, both times from the Indian side. It is a unique experience and the crowds are clearly thrilled to be part of it. It is hard to imagine such a party-like atmosphere at a border closing anywhere else in the world. Sadly, the event was the target of a suicide-bomber in 2014 killing over 60 people. But this tragedy has not deterred the two countries from holding the event, which has taken place daily since 1959. It may be one of the few things that these two countries agree upon.
I would love to have the opportunity to see it from the Pakistani side one day. Better yet, I would rather see the guards from both countries joining the women and children in the dancing, and closing the ceremony by hugging their counterpart, but I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime…