Thursday, June 14. Wagah, Punjab, India.
After an afternoon nap to recover my energy, we drove the 30KM from Amritsar to Wagah on the India-Pakistan border, and the only crossing for foreigners between the two countries. Since partition in 1947 there has been tension between the two countries, Starting in the early 1950s a kind of strange spectacle developed that today draws some 15,000 – 20,000 spectators each evening as the border is closed.
The experience is a bit surreal and probably one of the best pieces of public theater we’ve seen anywhere, even if at times it seemed like theater of the absurd.
Locals and foreigners alike stream into the border area. After passing through a security check (no bags allowed), the regular Indians go one way, while foreigners and VIPs go another way to special seating. There is outdoor theater like seating on both sides of the border and on the Indian side this was completely filled. The Pakistanis were clearly outnumbered tonight.
Things kick off with a loud “jam off” as each side blasts music through speakers. Next a cheerleader shows up and gets the crowd riled up. This is quickly followed by the production of several flags that people run up and down in front of the crowd. Ben and Aaron got in on the action and had a run themselves, generating an approving roar from the assembled masses.
At some point, popular Hindi music began to play, including “Jai Ho” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and women came out of the crowd and spontaneously began to dance. It all had a carnival like atmosphere. Even afterwards, on the way back to our car, there were vendors selling food, drinks, sweets, and souvenirs.
Eventually the guards show up in their peacock like finery. We especially liked the plumes in their headwear. Then begins a coordinated series of maneuvers such as fast marching up to the gate, flicking hat plumes at the other side, and the most exaggerated goose stepping you’ve ever seen, unless you are a Monty Python fan, in which case, you’ll know that you’ve found what surely must have been the inspiration for the Ministry of Silly Walks.
My understanding is that all these movements are paralleled on the Pakistani side, but since you can’t really see across the border until the gates get opened, I’ll just have to take their word for this.
At last the gates are opened and with malicious fanfare, the flag ropes get tossed around until both sides lower their flags at exactly the same time. Then the gates get slammed shut in the face of the Pakistanis and everyone gets up and goes home.
Highly recommended if you are ever anywhere near! Unfortunately, since Pakistan is west of India, it is very difficult to take photos from the Indian side as one is shooting towards the setting sun. Well at least the Pakistanis get one thing in their favor.