The Wacky Wagah Border Crossing
If someone were to ask me what the craziest experience or thing I witnessed during my two months in India, even though there were quite a bit, the Wagah Border Crossing would top the list. India and Pakistan have had a tumultuous relationship, including fighting in four wars, that has stretched back to Indian independence in 1947. Flash forward to present day, their relationship is still very sour, and there is only one possible border crossing via land, at the Wagah Border.
To add a bit of humor to the situation, even though the two countries greatly dislike each other, they cooperate every evening to put on a border show for spectators, both on the Indian and Pakistani sides. Amritsar, home of the famous Golden Temple of the Sikhs, is located only 30 kilometers away from this famous border crossing. Along with a couple of others, I was able to hire a tuk-tuk from my hostel to take us to the border to witness this famous event. Our driver, “Vickey”, was a mischievous fellow, and asked us if we wanted to take a turn driving the tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks by design, cannot go faster than 50kms or so an hour, so I eagerly hopped at the opportunity. Not relinquishing total control, Vickey stayed up in the front seat, ready in case of any emergency. Holding the throttle and putting my foot on the gas, I went at the maximum speed. Along the way we passed several other tuk-tuks full of Indians also going to the Border Crossing show. On seeing the driver of our tuk-tuk, their faces lit up with smiles and laughter at the “gora” who was driving a tuk-tuk. While I enjoyed driving the tuk-tuk, I have no desire to participate in the “Rickshaw run”, a cross-country race through India conducted entirely in a tuk-tuk. I’ve heard that the days are long and tiring and that it quickly loses its novelty.
This show is put on by the soldiers who normally guard and police the border crossing during the day. However, at the close of the border at 5:30 pm, they launch into a theatrical performance, marching with high kicks and waving their hands as they try to outdo the opposing country’s side. There are even grandstands erected on both sides of the border crossing for spectators to watch the show, further adding to the strangeness of the situation. Since when is a border crossing a scene for a performance, by the military no less?
On the Indian side, there is even a section reserved for foreigners. I was greatly pleased by this news, as it meant that we did not have to wait in the long security line with the other Indians, and instead could join the minimal queue of foreign guests. This and the Foreign Ticket Quota for trains are one of the few instances I found where India actually caters to foreign tourists rather than trying to exploit them for money like they do at all of the tourist attractions.
After making our way through security, we dodged the touts trying to paint the Indian flag on our faces in exchange for money, and found our seats in the foreign tourist section. It was over a half hour before the show was slated to begin, but the Indian section was almost full, and the spectators were abuzz with excitement. Meanwhile on the other side of the border, the Pakistani stands were both smaller in scope and less full, with only about a couple hundred people present, as compared to the nearly 1,000 on the Indian side.
As we sat in the stands waiting for the performance to begin, several young Indians made their way down from the stands to the floor below where several of the soldiers were holding large Indian flags. Two or three at a time, they would grab the flag and race down the floor, waving it excitedly while the people clapped and cheered. I was also interested in participating, and myself and another guy tried to go down when we were blocked by a soldier. It was only then that we noticed that the line below consisted entirely of Indian girls and young women, and that no men were present. Oops!
A bit frustrated, we encouraged the two girls with us to go down and have a try waving the Indian flag. After a bit of prodding they made their way down the steps and were immediately ushered to the front of the line. As they ran across the floor waving the Indian flag, the crowd let out an even louder cheer than before, pleased that the foreigners were participating in their tradition. Let me tell you, it was truly something else!
Soon the flag waving ceremony was over, and some popular Indian music began to blare over the loudspeakers. The Indian girls all let out screams of excitement and the ones still seated in the stands rushed to the floor to join their peers. What happened next was a giant dance party of almost 200 girls and women, all dancing together while all the men and other guests looked on dejectedly or clapped along to the music. Our girls, Georgia and Rihanna, joined in the dancing fun, as the Indian girls eagerly included them in their dance circles. It was truly an amazing experience to witness. It made me realize just how much women and girls are segregated and marginalized by Indian society, and this was one of the few times when they had their chance to shine. Perhaps one of my favorite moments was when they loudspeakers played the song, “Jai Ho,” popularized by the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire.” The Indians girls let out squeals of delight as they performed dance moves in unison with each other.
A few minutes before 5:30, the music stopped played, and the girls were ushered back to their respective seats. It was time for the official border show to begin. In groups of 2’s and 4’s the Indian soldiers resolutely marched towards the gate separating the two countries, with high kicks rivaling those of the Rockettes’. The people cheered and whistled as this occurred. There were several other shows of great fanfare, and it was soon time for the Pakistani side. This was much harder to witness through the gate, but we could hear the Pakistani spectators cheering for their soldiers. After a few more marches back and forth from the gate, they then began to lower the flags that flew at the border and the show ended abruptly, shortly before 6pm. There was no indication that it was finished, and we only realized as such when the Indian people began filing out of the grandstands and headed for the walk back to the parking lot.
As we made our way back to the tuk-tuk and during the ride home, we were still in a bit of a shock from this bizarre but interesting event. I’ve truly never seen anything like it!