Thirty kilometres west of Amritsar is the India/Pakistan border crossing of Wagah. Every evening a border closing ceremony is performed here for patriotic Indians, Pakistanis and tourists at sunset to mark the official closing of the border. Soldiers from both sides don traditional but unusual dress uniforms for the ceremony and theatrically perform their rituals much to the delight of the hugely energetic and hyped up crowd.
We made the drive from Amritsar to Wagah packed into the back of a jeep and in less than an hour we were pulling over and beginning the walk to the border. Police on horse-back did their best to control the excited crowd although they employed some unusual tactics, grinding the horse’s head into the head of one man and sending him to the back of the queue for skipping. Organising the crowd into queues for the security check was no easy task, the men were ushered into one line and women to another, as is the way in India. Understandably security was pretty tight here and some were unfortunate not to get in, no bags were allowed, not even handbags for women and each individual attending had to pass through a metal detector and a pat down before being allowed to continue. Once through the security checks people began running towards the terraces surrounding the performance area but luckily for us a special area was reserved for foreign visitors just behind the V.I.P area and so slowly we ambled to our seats while the locals battled for elbow room in the jam-packed terraces.
Walking in we were greeted by a marching band, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, walking along a red carpet in the middle of a tarmacced area. Less than a hundred metres away were two large black wrought iron gates which separated India from Pakistan. The area for the performance was like a small arena. An oval terraced spectators stand surrounded the narrow, partly red-carpeted street, half the arena lay on the Indian side of the black gate and half the arena lay on the Pakistani side. At each end the flag of each respective country fluttered gently in the light breeze above a large portrait painting of a national icon, Gandhi for India and Muhammad Ali Jinnah for Pakistan. Across from where we were sitting were two small administrative buildings and behind one we could see some of the soldiers stretching and warming up doing straight leg kicks high above their heads, the most flexible soldiers we’d ever seen!
Typical Bollywood style music was being pumped through the speakers surrounding us and the crowd was buzzing. A charismatic individual in a very retro looking but sparkling white tracksuit with a huge Indian flag on the back was out in the centre of the tarmac amping up the crowd. Like a ringmaster at the circus he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand; blowing kisses, making heart shapes with his hands and throwing them into the audience, holding his hand to his ear for a louder cheer and applauding the crowd the louder they got. Young girls ran up and down the red carpet area in front of the stands carrying the massive green, white and orange flag of India and then it was the turn of the mothers and the grannys to carry the flag and the crowd was ecstatic.
Through the gates on the other side of the border the scene was a little different but still the crowd was singing and chanting for their country. The Pakistani gathering was divided with men on one side of the terraces and women on the other. The Muslim dress was obvious too with all the women wearing headscarves or full burkas and the men all wearing the traditional attire of white hats and long shirts.
Jai Ho, a song made famous from the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, was the last song to be played over the loudspeakers and had the crowd going nuts. Grown men were up dancing in their seats, roaring the lyrics to the song while a large group of women from the crowd had come together in front of the stands dancing like they were on the set of a cheesy Indian pop music video. The guards didn’t even try to control the women and just let them dance, probably the safest move for everyone! There was so much energy flowing through the crowd at this point and it was a fun, positive vibe coming from two groups of fans, either side of the fence. The crowd motivator in the white tracksuit gave the Indian spectators a final few words of encouragement in Hindi and the border gates were opened simultaneously on both sides.
The soldiers featuring in the ceremony stepped forward to the delight of the crowd. They wore a khaki uniform complimented by a red and black striped sash and bright gold trim around their waist kept in place with a well polished black belt. On their shoulders each displayed red badges and protruding from their open collar was another red and black striped piece of material, matching that on the waist, although this had a very official looking black and gold emblem attached. A gleaming white piece of material came up from the shiny black shoes each soldier wore, coming up to just above the ankle. This dress uniform was already quite different to anything I had seen before but it was the head dress that each wore that was most unusual. A bright red head dress, with gold tassels on one side was worn by each of the six soldiers featuring in the ceremony, topped with what looked like an open fan, also bright red and gold. The Pakistani soldiers on the other side also were dressed in this same fashion although their uniforms weren’t as colourful but rather a more menacing black and white combination.
A command was roared and the soldiers came rushing out, their eyes bulging with intensity, they stood rigid and powerful, their determined eyes staring out between their bright red head dresses and pitch black moustaches. In pairs they stepped forward and in the most bizarre fashion, with a straight leg they kicked high into the air, well above their own heads, turned on their heel, stamped aggressively and marched with incredible speed and synchronisation towards the border gates. The Pakistani soldiers on the other side at the same time carried out similar maneuvers and a pair of soldiers were marching at speed towards the border line from each side. Upon reaching the border both pairs of soldiers stopped abruptly and again high kicked to the point it almost hurt to watch! There was no contact between the soldiers, just this theatrical display of high kicks and foot stamps and the crowd on both sides were absolutely loving it! Three pairs of soldiers in total carried out the weird but wonderful choreography, marching ferociously towards the border each time to face off against their Pakistani counter-parts. The crowd went crazy for every high kick which would put most Irish dancers to shame and was not dissimilar to John Cleese’s march in a certain Faulty Towers episode. Marching down the red carpet, the soldiers incorporated a goose step into their walk with perfect timing and execution, this was a well-rehearsed drill and these soldiers were experts at it. The most impressive of all was their facial expressions, the soldiers carry out this tradition every day and yet they maintained this look of crazed intensity which got the crowd even more enthused.
Throughout the ceremony the sun had been gradually setting over the Pakistani side of the border. As the sun was almost set, the two captains approached each other on the border line and briefly shook hands and then stepped back and the gates were closed. The flags, which had remained flying high throughout the ceremony now were lowered with military precision, inch by inch, in perfect timing with the lowering of the flag on the opposite side and the crowds voice once again filled the air. A chain was raised to stop any of the hyped up spectators from approaching the gate and it was all over. The border at Wagah was closed for another day but tomorrow the same energetic, patriotic ceremony would play out again and these two nations would come together once more, if only to perform this most unusual of traditions.
Brian is a travel writer, photographer, blogger, travel addict and adventure-junkie. Being outdoors, getting off the beaten track and outside his comfort zone is what makes him tick. Brian’s the dreamer in the relationship; when he’s not travelling, he’s dreaming about it! Keeping fit, cooking, music and red wine take up the rest of his time.
Sign up for our free travel photography Ebook "Faces of Nepal" and you'll also receive our monthly newsletter.