Every time you google up for Wagah Border, an exemplary image of a parade ceremony pops up - an Indian BSF soldier and a Pakistani ranger, with one leg on the ground and the other leg reaching high up the level of their heads, facing each other.
The image itself is fascinating and attractive! Often looking at such images, I used to surmise, "Wow! How do they do this, and what are they doing?" So, you see. That was pretty much the main push for me to visit the famous and prestigious Wagah border. Moreover, the curiosity of being close to India's 'constant' tension, Pakistan, further kindled another reason. With these hovering wishes, I added the visit to Amritsar to watch the Wagah border ceremony.
Crossing the border to visit Pakistan excited me more. So, I googled and researched thoroughly about it. From the time I had read about the Katasraj temple in Punjab, Pakistan, I have been itching to visit there! Now that I was going as close as Wagah, I did all the research, but due to the laxity of time to arrange for a visa, I had to bid farewell to this trip. Unfortunately, I did not even witness the Beating Retreat border ceremony.
Having heard of all the strife the two countries possess, I was expecting it to be a solemn ceremony. Beware: the spoiler is round the corner! I was in for a big surprise!
Attari - Wagah Border
Wagah is a village at the Indo-Pak border and hence, the apparent name of the ceremony. Lately, someone pointed out that Wagah is not in India, so it is no longer called the Wagah border.
What do we call it now, then? It is called the Attari border as Attari is the village in the Indian mainland on the Indo-Pak border. Precisely, the towns of Attari and Wagah are about 30 odd kilometres from Amritsar. So close…
These two villages lie on the Old Grand Trunk Road that connects Lahore and Amritsar and the Radcliffe line drawn during the Partition of India to butcher the Indian subcontinent.
This ceremony is a scheduled one. With every sunset, the Beating retreat ceremony, also known as the flag down ceremony, occurs, wherein the National Flags of both the respective countries are lowered. It is highly regal!
In a way, my earlier visit to the Partition Museum at Amritsar and my constant readings about the roller coaster ride that Punjab was put through during the dark session of partition, I was looking forward to being on that road, to be on that historic border that happened to change the lives of so many!
On approaching the border from a neat distance, I saw two tall poles, one with the hoisted Pakistan flag and the other left blank.My driver further added, "We erected a 360-meter tall pole. And they decided to erect a 400-meter tall pole! Now we cannot have our flag at a height lesser than them, right! So, an empty pole."
Like, seriously!? I wondered what more things we will fight for. I brushed away these thoughts and looked forward to the ceremony. Luckily, I had the VIP pass with me.
Note: Lot of tours operates out of Amritsar only to watch Wagah Border. This is an easy commute option if you are not planning to take a VIP pass.
How to Obtain a VIP Pass for Wagah Border Ceremony
Ideally, you should contact a member from the Army or BSF to obtain the VIP pass. Well, Punjab Tourism helped me in getting one.
Honestly, I did not try this; instead, I was informed about it. First, you need a car and a VALID ID proof. Next, visit a place called Khasa, about 15km from Amritsar, and get yourself registered at the BSF gate or the commissioner's office.
Before your visit, get the pass ready in advance as the list of visiting VIPs gets prepared early in the morning and is never altered. NOTE: Having a vehicle is a must.
A VIP pass is not mandatory. With standard access, reach there at least 3hrs before the ceremony to find a good spot in the gallery. Kindly arrive early as there would be a packed crowd with long-standing queues. Foreigners, however, are allowed to move to the chaired gallery without sweating in the crowd.
Note: Carry the ID card (aadhar, pan card, license, etc) of all the members visiting the ceremony, as it will be verified at multiple places.
The Beating Retreat
Approaching the checkpoint, a soldier checks the list and lets the vehicles in. Since I had hired a taxi, I had to get it parked at the general parking area. With a personal car, you can proceed further down a kilometer.
Situations and their instant solutions…
Even before the taxi got parked, a seller threw the Indian flag and a hat into the car on my lap for me to buy it. How insane isn't it?Next up, a kid was ready to brushstrokes of a flag on my cheeks.
Seriously, if it were not the Indian flag, I would have thrown it right outside the car, right then. It wasn't delightful! A quick tussle between me and the flag guy ensued, as I refused to buy, and he refused to take the flag back. Sensing I was solo, he kept taunting for a while! Well, solo does not mean stupid. So, I started to walk with the flag and hat without paying him, and soon he came running behind, snatched away those, and cussed me for being unpatriotic! Eye rolls and drum rolls!
Hawkers selling water and eatables will be seen and heard shouting at the top of the voices claiming that they are not available inside. Could you not buy their lies? Everything is pretty much available even in the gallery.
I had to pass through various checkpoints and verification points before entering the arena. The VIP side was no less crowded, and people had duly dressed up for the flag-down ceremony. I wish I knew to get dressed up to! Amidst the dressed VIPs, I looked like a beggar, perhaps with a newly won lottery ticket.
Points to remember: You cannot carry any bag. Carry only your wallet, camera, and ID card. Water, a hand fan, and a hat will make the sweltering sun bearable.
With the jammers, Mobile phones are of no use. There are two gates. One on the Indian side and the other on the Pakistan side.
The Flag down ceremony is pretty much the activity of the gates being opened at sunset time, the national anthem being played, and the flags being lowered.
It might sound simple, but it is not so. The ceremony occurs for a reason. The crowd is always excited. Patriotic Bollywood songs keep blaring. Indian flags are handed over and mini-war kindles regarding who gets to hold and take a selfie.
Suddenly, a man starts to cheer the crowd, and the crowd shouts following slogans from "Vande Mataram" to "Bharat Mata ki Jai ho". Wow! That man pretty much veered the entire show.
Humorously, like a music composer with a vast orchestra in front of him, he would sometimes turn to his left and ask people to cheer, the middle, and then to his right, and then turned to the VIP side and asked why; the hell everyone was quiet!
Very many mini-competitions continued within the gallery! The immense competition occurred across the gate. If Pakistan played a song at 100 decibels, we played one at 120 decibels.
With the Pakistanis shouting a slogan, we shouted ten more slogans. We won because we outnumbered them by significant numbers. This competition was a pleasurable silly being.
Soon, kids are seen running around with flags. Next, up even aunties, uncles, grandpa, grandma, everybody joined the line to show their patriotism and ran with the flag. At some point, the area turned into a live dance floor.
As the college girls danced, women and foreigners joined, the slogans slowly died and turned into mere howling and whistling at the women! At some point, the patriotic song also disappeared, and "It's the time to disco" was being played. How pathetic!
The ice cream, popcorn, cold drinks sellers were doing some great business.
Now, finally, the gates open for a moment; few officers walk past the entrance, get themselves signed in the register, shake hands with the officers from the other side, and the gate shuts again. Surprisingly, nobody seems to take notice!
Next, the crowd was asked to settle down, and the ceremony began. The Soldiers marched in, and it is indeed a sight of immense pride. It is a spectacle you cannot stop yourself from cheering. It is heavenly!
The crisp walk, the charismatic sway of hands, the coordination of the limbs; once they were moving like a wind, once standing like a tree. Honestly, I lost my heart to a couple of them. Then, the guards arrive at the gates, and they are flung open.
On one side are our Indian BSF soldiers donning khaki and colourful red hats and on the other are Pakistan Rangers in black. What follows next will seem like a superbly scripted movie.
The soldiers march up to the gate in their parade fashion, lift their leg high up, thump on the ground fiercely and showcase their muscle strength with bloodshot eyes to their Pakistani counterparts.
The same parade gets performed by the Pakistani Rangers too. A series of such parades keep being performed – at times, together or just one or a pair of them. Do watch the video below.
Every time the soldier reveals their hardcore stamina and muscle power, the crowd yells slogans, and the gallery resounds with clapping filled with pride.
The sun is almost about to set! Well, the sun chose to set on the Pakistan side! We lost in that race in a way. The flags are then lowered onto the poles.
You will appreciate the neat precision with which the flags are lowered together to form a symmetrical X pattern with the strings. It never happens that one flag gets lowered first, marking any disrespect to the other.
Then, the crowd stands up with their respective National Anthems being played on either side. The flags are lowered, folded, and taken in with utmost respect. At the end of the flag ceremony, the gates get shut immediately.
You will see the crowd pouring down to take pictures in front of the grand gate. Few people go ahead to thrust their cameras in front of foreigners for a selfie.
With the ongoing patriotic fervour, the crowd takes pics showing muscle power and so on. By then, I was pretty much lost in thoughts.
I wondered why we should compete with Pakistan throughout the ceremony, why we should thump our feet and roll our eyes, why should we try to show ourselves as a more star power? Why at all compare? Why can we not simply have an ordinary gallery with citizens of both countries, meeting and greeting each other, watching the ceremony, and celebrating the camaraderie? Is it essential that with so much security be required for people to watch a flag-down ceremony? Too many thoughts came rushing in, with no definite answer to hush them down.
The sunlight dimmed, and with the crowd, I, too, decided to leave. The barbed wire ran across the border, cutting through the paddy fields. Therein, the Pakistani Rangers stood uptight, guarding their side, looking deep into the unknown. So were our BSF soldiers, totally unperturbed by all the gestures of the hooting and screaming. Perhaps, they must be thinking and maybe smirking too, "these guys shout slogans for an hour and call that patriotism!"
Honestly, I smile too, thinking of the same. After all, aren't we all belonging to the same clan who think supporting India to win at an Ind vs. Pak cricket match is the most incredible show of patriotism!
Note: The Flag down ceremony also happens at the Hussainiwala Border, Firozpur at Punjab. If you want a not so crowded version maybe that is a place to go.
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