Until 1999, the Wagah-Attari border crossing was the only road entry point between India and Pakistan, a border that is over 3300 kilometres long. That is very roughly like having only one border crossing to the USA between Vancouver BC and Thunder Bay ON. Naturally then, this border has a special place in history for both nations. Since 1959, soldiers from both countries have been specially trained to participate in a ceremonial lowering of the flags and closing of the border for the evening. The ceremony happens every day and is free on a first-come-first-seated basis. The border is about 40 minutes away from Amritsar so the only thing you have to worry about is organizing transportation, which our hotel helped us with (we were on our way to the Wagah border when I filmed Steve and his now infamous #thisisindia video).
Even though the border is fully functional, if you are just going to watch the ceremony, your transportation can only take you so far and then you must walk the rest of the way to the border. On the Indian side, there is seating for about 30,000 in a stadium-like setup. You have to arrive 60-90 minutes ahead to ensure you get a seat. While we waited, we saw a number of people cross the border from both sides on foot and in a bus.
The Indian side of the border is patrolled by Indian Border Security Forces (BSF). They wear khaki outfits with red accents, including very interesting mohawk-like hats. On the Pakistan side, the border is guarded by the Pakistan Rangers, who are dressed similarly but in black.
About 30 minutes before the official ceremony begins, announcers come out on both sides to warm up their respective crowds. Both sides play high-energy bhangra dance music and get the crowd to clap and cheer for their country. On the Indian side, a huge group of ladies were invited to dance on the pavement. On the Pakistani side, a traditional drummer playing a dholki warmed up the crowd.
The ceremony starts with the BSF and Rangers marching towards each other in pairs while high-kicking. I will not make any references to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks but if your mind goes there, you’re not wrong. These kicks are supposed to be intimidating to the other side. There is also a lot of posturing, chest puffing and fist raising.
While I did see many female BSF and at least one female Ranger standing guard and directing the crowds, they were not involved in the actual performance on the day we went. I’m not sure if participating in this ceremony is off limits to females. I haven’t seen any photos depicting them actually in the ceremony.
Although tensions exist between these two nations, the border closing ceremony seemed to be more collegial than adversarial. The border guards shook hands at the end and took turns working their respective crowds. It is clearly a well-oiled performance that would not have had the same effect if the atmosphere had actually been tense or confrontational. Let’s say it felt the same as being at a Knights game or a Leafs game at home. You cheer for your team and you want them to win. You don’t actually wish any harm to your opponent.