Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Edge of India

I had not done a lot of research on the daily Wagah border ceremony but had some idea in my head of what the ceremony might be like. It's safe to say that nearly every one of those ideas was incorrect. Some more than others.

The Physical Space
I'm fairly certain India built their grandstands and gate pillars first. Why would one make this assumption? Pakistan's were taller. A road runs through the border, and each nation has it's own gate. Pakistan's is green, the same color as its flag, whereas India's gate is actually painted like its flag (horizontal srtipes of orange, white, and green). I expected that the crowds would be close, if not even sitting across the border from one another, and that there would be some level of direct interaction between the sets of constituents. In reality, amphitheater style grandstands on both sides are set back maybe 100 or so meters from the border facing one another. In addition, on the south side of the road in India, there is a set of grandstands that line the road that runs into Pakistan. Right next to the border are a few rows of seats reserved for VIPs. The foreigners are placed in this grandstand which sits between the VIPs and the rest of the crowd. Thanks to our passports, this is where we sat.
A surprisingly prompt Indian crowd
The Citizenry
If there's one thing Indians aren't known for, it's being on time. Except at the border crossing. An hour and fifteen minutes before the scheduled start, when we arrived, the amphitheater in India was full. Looking across the border, there were only a few scattered people that I could see. The Pakistani side eventually filled in and the half that I could see appeared much more colorful than the Indian side. I looked a little closer and realized there was a reason; it was segregated by gender and the right half of the amphitheater was full of women in colorful clothing while the left half, which was mostly hidden from view, was occupied entirely by men.
Flag waving nationalism at its finest
One other item of note was that the Pakistani viewers were allowed to stand the entire ceremony; whereas, if someone in the Indian audience stood either before or during the ceremony, they were met with a stern look and a whistle from the soldiers below. Not until the lowering of the flags at the end of the ceremony was the Indian crowd allowed to stand.

The Buildup
Prior to the ceremony, the Indian side was much louder than the Pakistani. Of course, this might also have been because the Indians, as mentioned above, were early for once. The atmosphere was festive and the crowds and actions were very pro-India rather than anti-Pakistan. Girls were allowed to line up in pairs and take turns running the Indian flag toward the border. Music was played, and women danced in the road. I'm sure there's some significance, but men weren't allowed down at that time.
Indian girls taking their turn running the flag
As the Pakistani crowd filled in the grandstand it became more lively. While the Indians dance to their loud music, loud music could soon be heard across the border as well. Finally, there was some sense of friendly competition.

Prior to the dancing and music, the daily bus from Delhi to Lahore approached the border and both gates were open. It was the only passed through the border. It was the only thing we saw go through the border in the two hours we were there.
The bus drives into Pakistan; near empty grandstand in background
The Ceremony
The actual ceremony had a little less pomp than I was expecting. Don't get me wrong, there's something a little unnerving about seeing an Indian soldier speed march toward the border, stop just short, and execute a high leg kick where he nearly hits himself in the face with his knee; however, there were far fewer soldiers involved than I expected. There were eight or ten soldiers involved on the Indian side. Honestly, I couldn't see much of what was going on in Pakistan, though each time an Indian solider approached the border, it's safe to assume one did the same from the Pakistan side.
Soldiers in a very fast march toward the border
There was also a lot of yelling into microphones from both nations. Having no idea what they were yelling, it can best be described as a screaming match where the person that screams the longest wins. I'm not sure exactly what they won, but there was a lot of cheering when the yelling stopped. I regret to report that the Pakistani soldiers consistently lasted longer than the Indian soldiers. Of course, I can tell you neither if this is good nor bad.

From time to time, someone sitting in the stands would stand, lead a cheer of "Hindustan" followed by the crowd yelling, "yeah-yeah-yeah" (or at least that's the general translation we were given). One gentleman, sitting in the row in front of us on the other side of the rope (the foreigner's section is roped off) took a couple turns leading the entire crowd. He was passionate, to say the least.
The ceremony ends by both countries simultaneously lowering the flag that flies by the respective gate. The flags are folded and quickly marched away in opposite directions, presumably to be raised the following morning (though there isn't a complementary flag raising ceremony).
The Indian side can finally stand to lower the flag
Returning the flag
The Exit
Once over, we left underneath the grandstand (which straddles the road) and walked back to find our driver. There was a buzz amongst the crowd much like when a concert lets out. My favorite part was walking past the sign that reads "India the largest democracy in the world welcomes you" in Hindi, English, and Arabic It's a little known fact that Indians are rightfully proud of. I have some experience with misunderstandings of this type and, as a graduate of Miami University, I can completely relate. You're probably not aware (unless you've been to Oxford, Ohio in which case you've most likely seen the tee shirt) that Miami was a university before Florida was a state.

The ceremony itself seemed a little anti-climactic. To me, it was interesting to just be at a border that is known to be less than stable though safe enough to still create a tourist activity. However, based on the amount of barbed wire and the number of machine guns posted high above the crowd, it still felt like a place you don't necessarily want to screw around. In other words, tt's probably not the spot you want to pretend like you're running for the border.

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