Daily celebration at the India-Pakistan border

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 their 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, 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 guard’s leg kicking, but the Pakistani scored 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 counterparts, but I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime…

Hindustan zindabad!




17 Responses

  1. Simply Fab. An everyday event? Imagine that! Love the photos. Saturated with vibrant colors, as usual for your photos. Your photos often contain motion, which you do well. I especially like the dancing women and the one where the Paki has his foot up by his head as an Indian is chilling out on the right side behind the gate. Funny. Reminds me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
    Great photography, France.

    1. Thanks Elise. I am so impressed that you can quote Macbeth. This quote sure reminds us where we stand in the world. Probably a good thing from time to time. Best, France

  2. Fabulous photos. What an amazing story. I knew nothing about it. It strikes me as being almost like a satire, although there must be some serious undertones for them all to keep the fierce faces instead of smiling at each other. Wonderful to read about it.

    1. Thanks Alison. It does feel a bit like theatre, probably because they do it day after day. But unfortunately, the animosity between the two countries is for real. Warm regards, France

  3. Your images of the ceremony are simply brilliant, France. And a wonderful narrative, as well. When I was there with Karl’s tour in 2012, I was severely scolded just for standing up in my seat to get a better shot, so I can’t fathom how you got such incredible perspectives – so close to the gates, in the middle of the parade route – but however you did it, bravo!

    1. Greetings Barbara. Thank you so much. I certainly agree that this is not the easiest place to shoot. I basically sat on the ground in front of the stands and tried to shoot toward the gate when nobody (no soldiers that is) was looking my way. I got sent back to the stands a few times. But even when you manage to shoot at the gate, there are challenges with the sun coming down as the ceremony unfolds. So I was just lucky on some of these. I am sure you had a great time regardless. Warm regards, France

  4. Love the photos.
    Certainly would give Greece or Buckingham Palace a run for their money in colourful ceremony.Hard to imagine the times when this has attracted terrible attacks.I’ve seen pictures where guards give each other gifts for special occasions at remote locations.I hope there’ll be a lasting peace.May all shots one day just be from cameras.
    Thanks for sharing these pictures of delight.
    Hope your shoulder has healed well & life is back to normal.

    1. Dear Emilie, Thank you. I am certainly with you hoping for peace in the area. I am sure the soldiers are all friends, after all they see one another every day. It is sad to think that a suicide bomber would use this event as a target but I guess anything that attracts crowds is an attractive target. I like your idea of camera shooting only. It would sure be nice.
      Injury is better, not quite back to normal yet but lots of progress. Thanks. France

  5. Beautiful pictures and sad we speak the same language have similar customs and yet————

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