Suitcase and World: The Wagah Border Ceremony.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Wagah Border Ceremony.

Ever find yourself in a situation where everyone around you knew what was going but you had no clue? Or have you ever been in an outdoor place that was so crowded that you were literally shoulder to shoulder and front to back with people all around you? If you want to have both experiences at the same time, then the Wagah Border ceremony is for you :-) In a nutshell, the Wagah Border ceremony is a 45 minute choreographed flag lowering ceremony, which officially closes the border each evening between India and Pakistan.  Troops of each country put on a show in their uniforms with their colorful turbans.  To witness the ceremony, you just have to get to Amritsar and from town, it's about 30-40 minute ride to border area where the ceremony takes place at 6:00pm every night. 

It was about 4:30p when Aman dropped me off as close as he could drive the car. From there, I joined a mass of people heading towards I had no idea where. I just followed the crowd. Then, the pace of walking slowed down and I found myself in the midst of a human traffic jam. Turbaned soldiers on horses rode through the crowd, separating us into the usual two *lines* - one for me and the other for women. That meant we were walking towards a security checkpoint. Luckily, I had left everything else behind in the car except for my camcorder, cell phone and small amount of money. I breezed passed security and continued to follow the crowd. Soon, I heard loud music blaring from speakers and the roar of an even larger crowd.

I found myself standing in front of a small open aired stadium with no idea which direction to head in.  From what I could see of the stands, the place was already p-a-c-k-e-d.  I headed towards one direction and was soon stopped by an immovable wall of men who were attempting to climb up onto the stands.  I turned around and headed in the other direction.  Seemed better.  I kept walking until I was in front of a set of stairs that wasn't all that crowded. Before I got my foot up on the first step, the guard stopped me and asked me for my passport. I told him I didn't have it on me and with that, he eyed me from head to toe.  I looked suspicious??  He let me pass and I scurried up the steps.  The stands were indeed packed and I was in the women's section....I got that right. The first section that I had tried to get into was the men's section.  I walked until I found a spot that I thought I could get a good view of the ceremony from.  I could also see the gate that separates the two countries and the Pakistanis who were participating in the ceremony - there were a lot fewer of them as their were seats available.

When the gate opened, I used my camera to zoom in so I could catch a view of the Pakistan Rangers in their dark green uniforms.  I don't know where the fan like topper for the soldiers' hats come from but it most certainly is an unusual adornment for a military uniform :-)

The Wagah Border ceremony dates back about 50 years and to be honest, after having seen it, I'm really not sure what to make of it.  It probably started out as a serious flag lowering ceremony but this is that is home to kitschy Bollywood so the present day border ceremony has a lot of strange elements to a strange Master of Ceremony who makes one of the Indian border guards do an extended shout out like the sports announcer who famously screams out goooooooaaaaaaal at soccer matches and the women who stream down onto the ceremony path and dance to a song from the movie Slumdog Millionaire.   If I were an Indian guard, I would protest.

As best as I could strain to see things, I watched events unfold before me - guards marching, people carrying flags and the MC shouting to which the crowd responded by cheering at the top of their lungs -- *Hindustan* .  Very patriotic.

I had no idea what the ceremony was all about.....there were no brochures or anything else to explain things. Even though I was standing next to two young women who kindly tried to explain things to me, I still really didn't get it all - I think you have to be Indian to fully appreciate the ceremony.  Or perhpas it had just been a long day and I was tired.  Here's how a journalist described the ceremony.

Supposedly a simple flag- lowering exercise on the road through their joint border, the 45-minute parade manages to be by turns, ferocious, ludicrous and touching. In elaborate turbans topped with huge fans, complicated uniforms and shiny black boots the soldiers from the two nations high-kick towards each other. They snort. They stamp. Their eyes are crazed and their moustaches are waxed until they resemble a cross between circus ringmasters and John Cleese in Monty Python's ministry of silly walks.

They meet and snap to attention; pushing out their fists and raising their thumbs, it looks like they might hit each other. But then they are off, high-kicking again, slamming their heels to the ground with a crack that sounds like gunfire.

Homa Khaleeli

After about an hour of waiting in the stands what I did get was that I was being sardined in as more and more women crushing in around me. Not to mention, the young children who were actually trying to squeeze in between my legs. 

It was getting more and more difficult to see anything so I figured if they lowered the flags, I would likely miss it.  I was starting to really not want to be here so I made up my mind that I would leave ahead of the crowd.

I wormed my way through the solid mass of women who occupied every inch of the stands, headed back down the steps, down the path I had walked up and was heading to where I remembered Aman having parked the car, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.  It was Aman.  I was so relieved to see him.

Back in the peace and quiet of our car, I slumped into the back seat....looking forward to a shower and dinner.
Surprisingly, I managed to take quite a few video clips of the ceremony.  I've strung a few together - not sure this is the best representation of the ceremony but I'm afraid it's as good as you'll get from me.