Every day, at the same time and place, a curious ritual takes place at the far northwestern edge of Punjab, India. Indian Border Security Force soldiers perform a flag-lowering ceremony that attracts more than 1,000 tourists and locals at the Wagah Border. This is the primary crossing between India and Pakistan, two countries locked in a war of words over property and religious disputes. Eager visitors flock here in the pre-dusk hours to mingle near the surplus of tea/food stalls while vying for the best place in the queue.
Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, is a short 30 km away making it the logistical home base for foreign tourists. As the time nears, the roads fill with traffic moving west toward Wagah Border. On arrival, parking attendants jockey for your business promising spacious spots. If traveling by taxi you’ll easily avoid this hassle. Tourists traveling by car/driver should ensure their driver will direct them to the correct queue or arrange a guide to help navigate the seating process.
Men and women are sent to separate seating areas, however, there is a smaller section for the mixed company specifically set aside for foreign tourists. Initially, there appears to be no system in place as all visitors queue together. We were told multiple times we would be let into the stadium seating sections closer to dusk. Then, as if a fire had been lit, men and women scrambled to separate queues on both sides of the road. The vantage point offered from the Men’s side versus the Women’s side is worthwhile. Because of the crowds and time of day, gauge your comfort level accordingly. My female travel partner was extremely happy that she sat with the Indian ladies, talking to and snapping pictures of her newfound friends. On the men’s side, I blended in with my surroundings attracting little to no attention.
Border soldiers can be seen idling about in full regalia causing fits of applause and cheers to erupt from the watchful audience. Both bleachers, on angles for maximum viewing, face the large rod iron gate protecting a narrow neutral border zone. Beyond the neutral zone lies a near-identical gate marking Pakistan. As the time to the ceremony nears, and your interest is beginning to wane, a “warm-up” performer steps out to pump up the crowd. “Hindustan!”, yells the man into his mic. On the opposite side, a similar game is being played with cheers for Pakistan yelled our way. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s turnout pales in comparison to India. All seats are taken here, and yet even more people line the stairs on down to the roadside. These folks take this ceremony seriously.
For what seems like too long, the performer goads the crowd into a frantic patriotic excitement. Finally, the soldiers fan out to perform the ceremony. A hush flows through the crowd as soldiers take orders from their commanders. The march of the Indian soldier is one of curiosity and amazement. Legs kick out in front rising to an even level with the ground, then repeat on the other side. As the audience remains captivated, the gates on both sides open. Soldiers of both countries salute each other and begin the flag lowering. Once completed, the gates on both sides are closed with the Indian flag marched back into the border security building for safekeeping.
The “real” show begins as audience members scramble down the too-narrow staircases to rejoin their families. Cars, taxis, Tuk Tuk’s, and buses honk in unison for exiting superiority from the lots. So much traffic is now leaving for Amritsar at one time, dust and exhaust clouds darken the road more than the on-setting night skies. Pedestrians dart along the roadside next to peanut vendors, cows, and bicycles.
Visitors to Amritsar would be foolish to miss this quirky but symbolic “pomp and circumstance” ritual. It’s free & colorful while providing a bird’s eye view of Indian passion to its fullest.