There is this picture that when you google up for Wagah Border ceremony popping up – an Indian BSF soldier and a Pakistani ranger, with one leg on the ground and another leg reaching up to their head, facing each other. I used to look at that picture and be like, “Wow! How do they do that! And what are they doing?” That was pretty much the reason for me wanting to visit the Wagah border. And also the curiosity of being so close to Pakistan, the country with which India has so much tension. So the moment I decided to visit Amritsar, watching Wagah border ceremony got added to the list obviously. I was actually more interested in crossing the border and visiting Pakistan that I googled and researched only about that. Yup, ever since I read about Katasraj temple in Punjab, Pakistan; I have been like itching to visit there. Now that I was going as close as Wagah, I did all the research but it was too short a time to arrange for a visa and hence could not travel. I did not even lookup how the Beating Retreat border ceremony happens. Looking at all the strife we have with the other country, I was expecting it to be a serious ceremony. I was in for a big surprise!
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Attari – Wagah Border:
Wagah is a village in Pakistan that borders with India and so all this while we were calling it Wagah border ceremony. Someone has pointed out that Wagah is not in India and so we no longer call it Wagah border. We now call it as Attari border because Attari is the village on the Indian side bordering with Pakistan. Attari and Wagah are about 30 odd kilometers from Amritsar. These two villages lie on the Old Grand Trunk Road that connects Lahore and Amritsar. And obviously on the boundary demarcation line is drawn during Partition of India. Every day, as the sun sets the Beating retreat ceremony also known as the flag down ceremony, happens where the National Flag of both the countries are lowered. Having been to the Partition museum at Amritsar and having read about the roller coaster ride that Punjab was put through during the partition, I was really looking forward to being on that road, to be on that border which changed the lives of many!! As I approach the border at a distance I see two tall poles, one with Pakistan flag and another with no flag. My driver adds, “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, empty pole..” I wondered what more things we will fight about and looked forward to the ceremony. Luckily I had a 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 be knowing someone in Army or BSF to obtain the VIP pass. Punjab Tourism helped me in obtaining one. I have not tried this personally but this is the information I have. Basically, you need a car and an ID proof. You need to visit a place called Khasa which is about 15km from Amritsar and register yourself at the BSF gate or the commissioner office. Do this a day in advance to your visit as the list of VIPs visiting the ceremony gets prepared early in the morning and there will be no further additions. But having a vehicle is a must. You can go without a VIP pass too but that means you have to be there like at least 3hrs before the ceremony to find a good spot in the gallery. Warning you there are going to be thousands of people and standing in long queues! Foreigners, however, are allowed to bypass the queue and move to the gallery which has chairs.
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.
Attari – Wagah Border Ceremony, The Beating Retreat:
Approaching the check point, a soldier quickly runs through the list and lets the vehicle in. Since I had hired a taxi I was to park it at the general parking area. If it is your own vehicle then you can proceed further down a kilometre. Even before the vehicle could be parked, a seller threw an Indian flag and a hat into the car on my lap for me to buy and a kid was ready to brush strokes of flag symbol on my cheeks. If it was not the Indian flag, I would have thrown it right outside the car, right then.. For some time there was a tussle between me and the flag guy, as I refused to buy and he refused to take it from my hand. Sensing I was solo, he kept taunting for a while! At some point, I lost my patience and started to walk with the flag and hat without paying him, and soon he came behind, snatched them away and cussed for being unpatriotic! Through out the way people try to sell water and eatables shouting at the top of the voices that they are not available inside but everything is pretty much available even in the gallery. The crowd swelled in! I passed through various check points and verification before entering the arena. The VIP side was no less crowded and people had dressed up for the flag down ceremony. I pretty much looked like a beggar who has won a lottery ticket and sat among the VIPs.
Note: You cannot carry bags or handbags. Take your wallet, camera and do not forget ID card. Water, hand fan and hat helps to sit in the sweltering sun. Mobile phones will not work in the arena.
There are two gates. One on India side and another on Pakistan side. The Flag down ceremony is nothing but the gates open at sun set time, the national anthem is played and the flags are lowered. Sounds simple? But no.. It is called a ceremony for a reason. The crowd is excited to the core. Patriotic Bollywood songs are blaring. Indian flags are handed over and there is a mini war over it, as to who gets to hold and take a selfie. A man starts to cheer the crowd and the crowd starts shouting slogans from “Vande Mataram” to “Bharat Mata ki Jai ho”. The man was pretty much veering the entire show. Like a music composer with a huge orchestra in front of him; he would turn to his left and ask people to cheer, and then in the middle, and then to his right, and then turned to the VIP side and asked why the hell everyone were quiet! So there was a mini competition going on within the gallery! And.. And.. there was a bigger competition going on with the people across the gate. If Pakistan plays a song at 100 decibels, we will play song at 120 decibels. If Pakistanis shouted a slogan, we will shout ten more slogans. Clearly, we won because we outnumbered them by great numbers. I don’t know if I should call this as silly or the little pleasures of life.
Kids are then given flags to run around with, basically to kill time. Soon aunties, uncles, grandpa, grandma, everybody joins the line to show their patriotism and runs with the flag. At some point, the area turned into a dance floor. As college girls danced, women and foreigners joined, the slogans died and turned into howling and whistling at the women! At some point the patriotic song also disappeared and “It’s the time to disco” was being played. The ice cream and pop corn guy was making a good business, so was the cold drinks guy. Among all this, the gates open for a moment, few officers walk past the gate, get something signed in the register, shake hands with officers from the other side and the gate shuts again; nobody seems to notice.
After about a good 30 to 40 mins of this show. The crowd was asked to settle down and the ceremony began. The Soldiers marched in and I have to say, it is a sight, a pride, a spectacle that you cannot stop yourself from cheering. The crisp walk, the sway of hands, the hand and leg coordination, moving like a wind, standing like a tree, I lost my heart to a couple of them 🙂 The guards arrive at the gate and the gates are flung open. One side is our Indian BSF soldiers in khaki and colourful red hat, on the other side are Pakistan Rangers in black. What follows next is like a scripted movie. The soldiers march up to the gate in their own fashion, lift their leg high up, thump on the ground fiercely and then show their muscle power along with blood shot eyes to the Pakistani side of the gate. The same is performed by the Pakistani Rangers too. This happens several times with all the soldiers performing together or just one or a pair of them. Do watch the video below. And every time the soldier shows the muscle power, the crowd goes hysterical shouting slogans and clapping filled with pride.
The sun is almost about to set! The sun chose to set on the Pakistan side! We lost in that race. The flags are then lowered. Have to appreciate the precision with which they hold the strings across and lower both the flags together, that it forms a symmetrical X pattern. It is never that one flag is lowered first marking any disrespect to the other. We stand up with respective National Anthems being played on either side. The flags are lowered, folded and taken in with utmost respect. The gates are then shut immediately.
The crowd pours down to take pictures in front of the gate. Few thrust their cameras in front of foreigners for a selfie. The patriotic crowd that is, takes pics showing muscle power and so on. Am pretty much lost in thoughts. Wondering, why should we compete with the other country, why should we thump our feet and roll our eyes, why should we try to show ourselves as a bigger power? Why can’t we just have a common gallery with people from both the countries, meet and greet, watch the ceremony and celebrate camaraderie? Why should so much security be in place for people and people to just watch a flag down ceremony? The sun had faded away and I decided to leave. The barbed wire ran across the border cutting through the paddy fields. The Pakistani Rangers were standing uptight guarding from their side, looking deep into the unknown. So were our BSF soldiers, totally unperturbed by all the shor and gala. They must be thinking and maybe smirking too that, “these guys shout slogan for an hour and call that as patriotism!” I smile too thinking of the same. After all, aren’t we all the clan who think India winning at Ind vs Pak cricket match as the greatest 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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