The Wagah Border Experience

A lot has been said about the ceremony that happens daily at the India- Pakistan border in Amritsar Punjab. The first being that they still refer to this as the Wagah border when Wagah is actually a village in Pakistan. For us Indians it is actually officially called the Ataree Border. That’s just one of the things people find fault but a lot has been said about how it’s more this elaborate song and dance and it’s more hype than anything else. Many folks don’t approve of the slander and  actively encouraging the crowd to look at Pakistan who is literally next door, as the enemy.

I’d be lying if I said I had no reservations. In fact I wasn’t so thrilled about going but I told myself long ago to never go by what other people say and to experience things myself so I for better or worse, I went.  I was actually on a press trip and we were about 16 people scheduled to go but after a long tiring day and with a lot of folks having mixed feelings or having already visited before, we ended up being just 6 curious souls who drove for about 30 – 40 minutes through  picturesque fields of green to the border.

There are several check points and while we did have some influence ( a lot of people always find someone who knows someone, it’s such an Indian trait but so helpful ) we were allowed to drive until a certain point and then had to join everyone else on foot. Several checkpoints ( and a LOT of unnecessary frisking ) later we walked into what is actually a stadium. You can see the border of sorts as you walk up because there is barbed wire all over but the space leading up to  it is a stadium built so spectators can sit and watch the celebrations. As you entire and it’s already blistering hot you can see the entire stadium almost packed with Indians and tourists and what is meant to be patriotic music blaring from a crackling bunch of loud speakers. On two sides is seats in the stadium, one is the entrance and the ONLY entrance where you’ve walked through and at the far end of that is the actual border. You see the India gate ( yes it is actually a gate ) then a small strip of what they call no man’s land ( neither theirs nor ours ) and then the Pakistani gate. Beyond that is their stadium. By this point is 3 or 3.30 pm and I’m about ready to die of a heatstroke and severe dehydration. What they don’t tell you till of course you’re in the car driving up there, is that you are not allowed to carry any bags. Just your phone ( no battery pack or charger ) and just your camera ( no big camera bag with gear ) and your wallet. What they should tell you is to carry a hat because it’s a furnace, this is North India for god sake, and plenty of water but there are vendors inside so it’s not that bad. By now the crowd is still gathering in but you get there early because you want a good seat. The thing is this is so popular for the Indian public that it’s packed to the gills every single day. The Pakistani side however seems like one fourth of our crowd so they seem rather comfortable while we sit like sardines and desperately clamouring to try and take pictures and videos.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but while they go through all sorts of music meant to inspire and awaken your patriotism but the truth is all it does is shatter your ear drums and make you wish you carried plugs. That is till of course they start jazzing it up and invite the crowd to come ‘ on the floor’ so to speak and suddenly it’s morphed into one crazy ganpati visarjan dance troupe. I will admit, to take my mind of the insane heat and sheer boredom of waiting I sang along and danced in my seat but you really need to embrace that crazy dance spirit to enjoy this. People are allowed to carry the Indian flag which I have to say is heartwarming specially when you see older men and women who can just about walk proudly walking with the flag and I had my moments of ‘ I’m such a proud Indian’.

At 5 pm the dance party comes to a grinding halt and the incredibly Indian Army takes over. They parade and march about to the gate and get you all excited thinking they’re about to open it. Of course Pakistan is doing a mirror version on that side. Now comes the part I find rather silly and clearly what more folks have a bone to pick with. There is a MC who constantly makes gestures and taunts towards the Pakistani gate and encourages the crowd to try and drown out the other side. Make no mistake the Pakistanis do the same and it’s this huge production of getting the crowd on both sides all rattled up hooting chanting and cheering to try and drown out the other. There is SUCH a dramatic build up that by the time the soldiers swing open the gates I’m exhausted and can’t wait for them to get on with it. I did wonder if the guards would cross over to each side but they continue this ridiculously high foot swinging and stomping in what is no man’s land and then slowly each guard lowers their respective flag goes back inside, swings their gate shut. Folds the flag, takes it away and that ladies and gentlemen is the end of the evenings production. At this point the crowd on either side is so excited to just take selfies that they are all trying to get as close to the gate as possible but yours truly was so paranoid about leaving in one piece because as I mentioned there is only one entry and exit gate and it’s actually very scary should there be an emergency or if something went wrong.

To sum up, I have to admit I did think it was a bit of an over dramatic and rather long drawn out production but I’m really glad I went. I was seated right near the gate which was for lack of a better word – very cool ! I could see over and it was nice to have the Pakistanis waving over. I’ve heard so many stories of Pakistan and the people there. Politics is one thing but every single person always tells me that the main people of Pakistan are warm and hospitable. I kept thinking what it would be like to actually not have those gates and it would all be one big arena. I kept wondering what it must be like to walk across those gates and I’m told this is how many people visit Lahore and vice versa. My own friend walked across the border to visit her friend in Pakistan and then walked right back ( of course you need proper documents and a valid visa ). I think I enjoyed those thoughts more than the actual ceremony. The golden question I always ask myself and that’s my real litmus test is would I go again? Would I visit the Wagah Border again? This one I’m not quite sure how to answer.

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