Travel Writing Awards Finalist
A stubborn, solitary cow slowly meanders across the intersection in front of me, bringing a chaotic mass of cycle rickshaws, trucks and cars temporarily to a halt. Or at least they appear to slow down for the briefest of moments. The pause in the traffic leads to a crescendo of blaring horns, an inescapable pounding of the eardrums as the free-for-all pushes impatiently to again be on its way.
All around the main street and in the smaller alleyways leading away from it locals calmly go about their daily business, chattering, bargaining and laughing. The air is thick with heat and dust in the afternoon sun, and you can feel the warmth reflected upward from the roads and footpaths as you walk along the streets.
I am in Amritsar, the capital of the Punjab region in India’s northwest. I am also very close to Pakistan, with the city of Lahore only fifty kilometres to the west. The city’s proximity to the Pakistani border makes it a key transit point and the key border crossing between India and Pakistan for both freight and tourists is the town of Wagah, some forty minutes drive to the west. The controversial Radcliffe Line was drawn through the middle of Wagah in the creation of modern day Pakistan and India in 1947, and it remains a divided town.
A large number of people that go to Wagah today don’t actually intend to cross the border however, instead they arrive to attend the border closing ceremony, the ‘Beating of the Retreat’, which takes place on both sides of the border each evening.
After forty minutes in an intimately packed minivan we pass through the town of Attari and come to a halt just on the other side. It’s mid-afternoon and the crowds have already begun to arrive. Drop-off points can be more than a kilometre away from the actual border so cycle-rickshaws ply a good trade. Both sides of the road are also lined with food and drink vendors who busy themselves as the crowds slowly drift westward.
As we approach the border we can see a modern looking brick archway over the road, some twenty metres high. Through this we can see the border itself, with the gates marking the dividing line still open. Following the road still further and it passes beneath a second archway, over which the green and white flag of Pakistan is flying. On both sides of the border and both sides of the road numerous stands have been constructed, as if for a cricket match.
The women in their flowing, brightly coloured dresses are seated first and are provided with a separate section. Then it is the men’s turn, several hundred males jostling chaotically all trying to get to the same place at the same time, but though a network of incredibly narrow paths. Once at the stands we find that in addition to the separate men’s and women’s sections there is also a “VIP” section, set closer to the border, where foreign tourists are sat.
As we are seated traditional Indian music starts pounding out of loudspeakers perched around the tops of the stands. The atmosphere is something of a cross between a cricket match and a dance party, with the crowd, numbering well over a thousand people by now, begininning to sing and cheer. On the Pakistani side of the border some one hundred metres away there is similar activity, though, and apparently to the delight of the Indians, on a slightly smaller scale.
Over the loudspeakers the music is suddenly replaced with a man excitedly yelling “Hindustan!”, with the crowd quickly catching on and screaming back, call and response style. Then just as quickly two Indian flags are produced and two spectators are chosen at random to run along the road in front of the stands and up to the guards at the border. It’s inevitably a race between every pair of flagbearers of course, either two men at a time or two women. The crowds applaude as the flags and their bearers race up to the border and then back again.
After several such races, the crowds on both sides now whipping themselves up into a frenzy, the border guards finally march out of a neighbouring building and present themselves. Unlike their civilian counterparts they wear very serious expressions and their steps are perfectly synchronised. The uniforms of the guards are in some ways a comical balance to the stern looks on their faces, with their ornate headdresses easily mistaken for the back end of a peacock were they not a very deep, bright red colour.
After the six guards march out and stand to attention each takes turns marching up to the border, with some high goose-stepping that even Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks could struggle with. As each guard arrives at the border, opposing Pakistani guards perform a similarly high-stepping routine. Usually this involves a series of headhigh goose-steps followed by some frenzied foot stamping, with the crowds on both sides cheering more loudly the more frenzied the foot stamping.
A more sombre atmosphere settles over the crowd with the lowering of the flags however, the flags of both countries being lowered simultaneously to signify that neither neighbour is superior to the other. With the sun now low in the sky the gates are finally closed for the night and the ceremony comes to a close.
The ceremony is as much a symbol of national pride as it is of neighbourly respect. Even as recently as 2002, several hundred thousand Indian and Pakistani troops faced each other off over the Line of Control in Kashmir. The relationship between the two countries has historically been a troubled and frequently very hostile one. We can only hope that in the future the rivalry that exists between the two neighbours manifests itself though the fancy goose-stepping and cheering crowds of Wagah in preference to the military action of the past.