The enthusiasm of the crowd is infectious. Families and school students are rushing, many even running, from the road, where trucks wait in a long line to cross the border, to the entrance to the small stadium.
In the distance, close to the Indo-Pakistan border, I can hear a thudding – not cannons or gunshots, but the beat of Bollywood music.
I join the throng and in true Indian-style, elbow my way to the front of the security line.
The female soldier’s pat down of me is cursory, uninterested. She is more concerned about whether I am carrying cigarettes, a lighter or food. I have nothing but my camera and passport.
The passport is essential for a foreign visit to the daily border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan, about an hour west of the Punjabi city of Amritsar. It allows you free access to the VIP section, only slightly less crowded than the general admission seating. Two of my friends had left theirs at the guesthouse in Amritsar, but I show mine and we are waved through the barrier.
Despite the rush, the ceremony, which takes place at the end of every day when the border between the two nations closes, hasn’t yet started.
From our seats, a row of concrete steps, we can see over the green and red gates and into Pakistan.
Compared to the vocal crowd quickly filling the Indian side of the stadium, the Pakistani side (close to the city of Lahore) was almost empty of spectators. Both countries hold their own ceremonies each afternoon.
Although the event is very camp and very Bollywood-influenced, there is a sense of the fraught relationship between the two nations in the competitiveness over whose ceremony is better and louder.
Before the proceedings begin, the MC invites school students to dance in no-man’s land to thumping Bollywood music. The rest of us? Bounce in our seats.
The Pakistanis? Sit patiently on their side and wait for the ceremony to begin.
And begin it does, with pomp, ceremony and a touch of Bollywood glamour. The MC leads a row of soldiers in some kind of battle cry that should last longer and be louder than the soldier’s Pakistani counterpart.
On the few instances where the Indian voice falters first, everyone giggles a bit and the soldier is forced to take a deep breath and begin again.
Each call is punctuated by jubilant cries of Hindustan Hindustan Hindustan! from the crowd and plenty of fist-pumping and flag waving.
Then comes the marching, and the fancy display of high-kicks and legwork. One by one, a soldier from both sides march to meet at the border and they engage in some furious stamping and footwork.
The aim is, of course, to kick the highest, stamp the loudest, and generally be more outrageous than your counterpart.
Once each side has sufficiently intimidated each other, the flags that fly above the border are pulled down to symbol that the border is closing. The flags have to come down at exactly the same rate, of course, so both parties can keep face.
Then the huge iron gates are clanged shut. The crowd roars. And the border between India and Pakistan is closed for another day.
The patriotism on display here is incredible, and it’s easy to get caught up in and find yourself shrieking and fist-pumping with the best of them.
One day, when it’s safe to visit once more, I would love to view the ceremony from the Pakistani side and cheer just as loudly for the Pakistani soldiers as I did for the Indian.
The Practical Stuff
The Wagah border between India and Pakistan is just under an hour away by road from the city of Amritsar. The ceremony is held every afternoon around sunset – your guesthouse will be able to tell you what time that day’s ceremony is.
A taxi to take you there, wait, and bring you back to Amritsar will cost between 500 – 600 rupees. Again, your guesthouse can probably hook you up with other travellers to save costs. As far as I’m aware, it’s not possible to travel theere by rickshaw or by public transport.
Your driver will have to park about a kilometre away, since you’re visiting an open and active border. Take a picture of your car’s license plate if you’re worried you might forget which one is yours! Chances are your driver will recognise you anyway.
The ceremony is free to attend, and probably the best value attraction in India! Just remember to take your passport so you can sit in the VIP section.
Don’t take any large bags, food, cigarettes, lighters or chewing gum – you’ll have to surrender it all at the security point (as one of my friends discovered though, they will keep your lighter and give it back to you!)