WAGAH BORDER HIGH JINKS
Indian soldiers lined up on parade
"Hindustan, Jai Ho!" ("Victory to India!") comes the roar from a thousand throats.
"Pakistan Zindabad!"("Long live Pakistan!") comes the answering shout from an vociferous crowd beyond a low concrete barricade.
I'm in Wagah, on the Indian side of the border between India and Pakistan, to watch the flag-lowering and gate-closing ceremony that takes place between the two nations at every evening at sunset. It is, as Michael Palin aptly points out, a hilariously campy show of "carefully choreographed contempt!" and it draws tourists from all over the world.
Indian Border Security Force Soldier
Indians in their tiered stands whoop jubilantly, and not to be outdone, the Pakistanis respond with equal gusto. From where I stand I can see the Pakistanis in their amphitheatre across the border. Like the Indian audience, the crowd is a seething mass of bobbing heads and waving hands.
Women's section Indian stands
So why this mock show of belligerence between the two nations? Well, when British rule ended in 1947 India and Pakistan emerged as separate nations, and mass migrations of an estimated 14.5 million people followed-Hindus and Sikhs abandoning their ancestral land to move to India, and dispossessed Muslims going in the opposite direction. It was a raw and bitter cleavage, provoking savage reprisals that resulted in 800,000 to 1,000,000 deaths. Time has softened the memory of those horrific months, but the mistrust between the two countries still simmers, occasionally exploding into military standoffs in remote areas along the border.
Indian side of the border gates, looking towards Pakistan
Yet here we are today, sixty-seven years later, watching a display of patriotic zeal that borders on the burlesque, with cheers, thunderous clapping and good natured hoots or jeers on both sides.
The foreign visitors' section fills up fast. Throngs of tourists and media representatives wield yard-long camera lenses and rib-digging elbows as they jostle for space. I am engulfed in a forest of heads and bodies, and waving, clicking cameras.
Women carrying Indian flag in relays
As a warm up act, relays of women holding aloft large Indian flags race back and forth, to enthusiastic applause. National anthem chants interspersed with Bollywood songs, blare over the loudspeaker. The crowd goes wild as a young woman whirls into action, lip synching the words of a film hit, with much hip-thrusting and casting of coquettish looks at her audience. She is replaced by a group of colourful Bhangra dancers, who leap in the air, wave their handkerchiefs, and invite people from the audience to join them.
Indian soldiers sharing a laugh
An 'any-note-you-can-hold-I-can-hold-longer' competition gets underway. From the Indian gallery comes a long holler sustained for about 50 seconds This is echoed in ear-shattering decibels for an even longer period by a Pakistani vocalist. Back and forth it goes, until finally the Indian bawler appears to win. The crowd in the stands go nuts, waving their flags, yelling and whistling in appreciation.
School children cheer soldiers on
A bugle sounds and six soldiers emerge from the Border Force Office building. Clad in khaki with striped orange and black sashes, their orange turbans are surmounted by enormous pleated crests that fan out like cockscombs. They speed-march with comical briskness along the pathway, then hard-stamp their feet to attention as they wait for the signal to approach the border gates. A fusillade of camera clicks erupt around me.
The sun is almost on the horizon, and the moment everyone's been waiting for arrives. The Indian soldiers speed march with a stiff-legged swagger, high-kicking their booted feet to the height of their eyebrows, and take their place at the gates. The Pakistani soldiers sport black fan-tufts on their turbans, and they too march arrogantly into place. Both sides wear pugnacious expressions, and there is much melodramatic posturing-shaking of heads and stamping of feet-as they come face to face. A blonde woman standing next to me chuckles, "Keystone Cops!"
The flags are lowered simultaneously
The bugle sounds, the soldiers salute smartly and the flags start their descent; both flags must come down at exactly the same rate, thus symbolizing the equal status of both countries. The commanding officers from both countries step forward, salute one another and exchange the briefest of handshakes. The gates clang closed, again with split second precision on both sides of the border. The Indian flag is folded and carried with solemn ceremony back into the Border Force Office.
The sun dips below the horizon, the last soldier disappears into the office building, and the audience offers its final round of applause. The crowd begins to disperse…and the tamasha (show) is over. Until tomorrow-when it will take place all over again.
IF YOU GO:
Wagah is 32 km from Amritsar (about a 45 minute drive by taxi) and is the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan.
For detailed travel information see http://wikitravel.org/en/Wagah
PHOTOS: As attributed.
1. Indian Security Forces soldier, Wagah. Photo: Margaret Deefholts
Special thanks to Anisha Gururaj and Sonya & Travis (and to those photographers whose websites I was unable to track), for the use of their pictures.Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com
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