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Wagah

  
   - darkometer rating:  6 -
  
The only officially usable border crossing point between India and Pakistan, which is one of the most heavily militarized and fortified borders in the world. But the bulk of people coming here do so not in order to actually cross to the other side but rather to watch the uniquely exuberant border closing ceremony that is held here every evening at dusk. 
  
Ritualized and showy as it may be these days, it is still a symbolic reflection on the arch-enemy rivalry and the ongoing tensions between the two countries, which frequently enough flare up into violent skirmishes, especially north of Wagah in Kashmir. But Wagah, near Amritsar, Punjab, is still also a very real part of this high-security border itself.    
More background info: When the colonial period ended and the Indian subcontinent was released by Britain into independence in 1947, it wasn't all hunky-dory and cheers all round. Quite the opposite. The new country immediately broke apart along religious fault lines, with the creation of the state of Pakistan going it alone as a Muslim country, separate from predominantly Hindu India. 
  
India and Pakistan were instantly more or less at war with each other during this period, which has become known as Partition. The “father” of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, who opposed the break-up, was even assassinated over this issue in 1948 (see Gandhi Smriti in Delhi).
  
(By the way: what used to be Eastern Pakistan later also broke away in a most turbulent fashion in 1971 and became independent as present-day Bangladesh (see Liberation War Museum) … but that's a different story.)   
  
Partition wasn't a smooth transition at all, as there were large parts of the population on either side who were not Muslim (in Pakistan) or Hindu (in India), respectively. Therefore millions saw themselves forced to up sticks and resettle on the other side of the new dividing line. It was a massive movement of people accompanied with much agony, violence and deprivation.
  
Parts of the border line remained contested too – and this is still the case in the northern region of Kashmir, where there is no official border, just a “Line of Control” (LoC) which to this day remains the stage for frequent skirmishes, with fatalities on both sides. Only weeks before I went to Wagah at the end of 2016 there had been a renewed flare-up of the endless conflict in September and October. And there are bound to be more instances to come in the future.
  
In any case, ever since the time of partition in 1947, Pakistan and India have been “arch-enemies” and had several military confrontations up to another proper war in 1965. This arch-rivalry was also a main driving force behind both countries developing nuclear weapons (neither have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty). 
  
The border between Pakistan and India remains one of the most heavily guarded fortified borders on the world. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) claims to be the largest of its kind on Earth (the Pakistani equivalent force calls itself “Rangers”). Not only is the border so militarized it is even illuminated by thousands of floodlights at night so that the line can be seen from space (well, at least from the low orbit of the International Space Station). 
  
There have never been many official border crossing point along this sensitive line, and most are closed at the time of writing – except for the Wagah border checkpoint on the Grand Trunk Road between Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan).
  
This particular border crossing point is also special for another reason: the two sides have been performing a unique border closing ceremony every evening before sunset since 1959. Its official designation is “beating retreat ceremony” and it involves a lot of patriotic posturing and ritualized mock-provocation, marching soldiers, blaring music and cheers from the crowd, and culminates in the simultaneous lowering of both nations' flags – see below for a more detailed description.
  
The meticulously choreographed “show” has become well known over the years and has developed into a veritable tourist attraction, mostly for citizens of the two respective countries, but increasingly also for foreign visitors. On both sides of the border gate big grandstands have been erected to accommodate all those spectators. At the time of my visit to the Indian side, construction work was ongoing to further increase the seating capacity by at least a factor of two. 
   
On the Pakistani side there was a serious terrorist attack in 2014, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives just half a kilometre from the border after the show (i.e. when spectators were heading home). Some 60 are said to have been killed, and over a hundred injured. 
   
The continual ups and downs in the tensions between Pakistan and India can also be reflected in slight modifications in the border closing ceremony. Apparently the custom of exchanging small gifts on special religious festival dates has been suspended during periods of heightened tensions. During the autumn 2016 confrontations between the two countries, India even suspended the public attendance on its side altogether for a while. Fortunately for me they had resumed by December, when I went.
  
During the day the Wagah border crossing point (spelled Wahga in Pakistan) is theoretically “open” for travellers, but you have to have the right papers ready (no chance of getting a visa on the spot) and possibly expect some hassle. Opening times vary, and it's best to get there early. This crossing point is for people on foot only. Obviously enough it's impossible to both see the ceremony and then cross; neither can you arrive, cross to the other side and then watch the ceremony, because bags are not allowed into the viewing areas. So it has to be done as a return excursion from Amritsar (or, if you're in Pakistan, from Lahore).
  
There is also a separate crossing for passenger trains, running between Lahore and Delhi. But the bulk of cross-border traffic is commercial – and there is plenty of it. Hundreds of lorries make the crossing every day. India and Pakistan may be arch-enemies politically, but when it comes to business, pragmatism seems to win the upper hand as there is clearly a healthy exchange of trade. The commercial border traffic crossing point for lorries is also separate from the place where they hold the flamboyant ceremonies, but you can see it in the distance as you walk to the stands.    
  
  
What there is to see: Before you get to see anything much, you have to first get there and then pass through the exceptionally elaborate security procedures – see below. Some of it can already be considered part of the “dark” experience, though. 
  
This is especially true for seeing the heavily fortified actual border strip en route to the viewing area for the ceremony, but also for observing all the military presence and the many glamorizing posters everywhere. 
  
Once you've taken your seat in the allocated area, the wait for the actual ceremony to begin is “sweetened” by some pre-show of music, dancing and flag waving. In fact, on the Indian side people queue up to have their turn in running a loop round an area between the grandstands with big Indian flags … it's a bit like a torch relay race, but with flags. 
   
People in the (Indian) audience also come with flags and many wear caps with the Indian flag on. I've even seen kids with Indian-flag make-up on! In addition there is loud (Bhangra?) music blaring and a cheerleader-like guy egging people on to give loud patriotic shouts. “Hindustan! Hindustan!” is what the rallying cry is on the Indian side (originally a geographical term for the north of the Indian subcontinent, but now also a salutation and battle cry of the Indian Army).
   
Yet there is a degree of turn-taking with all the noise and patriotic displays. Instead of trying to drown each other out the whole time, the Indian music/noise slots are contrasted with periods of Pakistani drumming and long-drawn-out muezzin-like calls coming from the other side. 
   
Meanwhile the Pakistanis hand out little paper flags with the characteristic green and white and the half moon and star of their national flag. The crowd on the Pakistani side was notably smaller when I visited (and I was told repeatedly by my Sikh guide in Amritsar that this is always the case). But: there seemed to be a bit more intimate interaction. Rows of people were lining up to have group pictures taken right in front of the border gate. And the soldiers also seemed to be closer to the crowd over on that side. 
   
All the while you can observe border soldiers patrolling the border fence with dogs, and there are also genuinely armed soldiers standing guard. But the crucial part of the show is for the soldiers in ceremonial uniforms – and these are truly outrageous! I must say I found the mostly black Pakistani outfits more aesthetically appealing. But the Indians certainly sport the brighter colours – and more extravagantly trimmed beards and sculpted moustaches. You can observe all that while the preparations for the border closing ceremony are under way ...
   
… and then the guards come marching in. 
  
My view of the Pakistani side was partially blocked from where I was sitting so I concentrated on watching the Indians for this part of the early show. 
  
It is hilarious! I hope the photos below can give some impression – though nothing can beat seeing all this live  right in front of you with your own two eyes! 
  
First a whole group comes in, arms flying, while they exaggeratedly do their co-ordinated goose-stepping. Then pairs of feisty female soldiers come marching forward, also machine-gun-wielding soldiers in regular camouflage fatigues – but with headphones on (like some gangsta-rappers). But the most flamboyant show elements are put on by those ceremonial-uniformed peacocks. And they really do look like posturing peacocks with the big fans atop their turbans.     
   
While some of them get ready at the flagpoles the gates are suddenly pushed open and the best part of the prancing about commences. 
  
This involves the most OTT goose-step moves I've ever seen – where they try to outdo each other in a let's-see-who-can-get-their-legs-higher kind of competition. In addition there's a lot of shaking angry fists and posturing wild-eyed at the opponent … but of course it's all just ritualized displays of symbolic aggression only. If it wasn't for the knowledge that these two countries actually engage in genuine military confrontations, it would just be funny. But it is precisely because of the underlying reality of arch-enmity and latent war that this show gets its place here in the context of dark tourism.
  
The “highlight” of the ceremony is supposed to be the carefully synchronized lowering of the two national flags. But this is done in no time, and is followed by the final bit of super-exaggerated prancing about. Eventually the neatly folded flags are carried away by each side and all of a sudden the whole thing is over.
  
Well, at least the official part is. Immediately afterwards, the crowds gather around the “stars” of the show and there's a lot of posing and selfie-taking. The ceremonially-uniformed soldiers seem to be regarded as stars by the locals! I was half expecting requests for autographs … but it didn't go quite that far. 
  
And then the crowds start flooding out of the compound again. And as you walk back to whatever means of transport you've arranged, you're left with a strangely confused, bemused and at the same time both elated and somewhat appalled impression of it all. For an outsider, all these displays of aggressive patriotism are very weird indeed ... But I'm glad I had the chance to witness this. 
  
  
Location: right on the India-Pakistan border in the northern region of Punjab, ca 20 miles (30 km) west of Amritsar on the Indian side, and a similar distance east of Lahore on the other, Pakistani side.  
  
Google maps locator: [31.6047, 74.5731]
  
  
Access and costs: restricted, with lots of security, but free (on the Indian side at least) 
  
Details: To get to the border you have to have some form of transport, either a taxi or private car with driver, unless you're with an organized group.  
  
Vehicles bringing in spectators have to drop them off about half a mile or so from the actual borderline. Only a few coaches are allowed to drop their groups off closer to the border.
  
You then have to pass through security – and it is tight! You'll be frisked and your passport checked several times along the way. 
  
There's the usual segregation of women from men at the checkpoint, but tourist couples are allowed to proceed together afterwards and sit together. There's a separate section in the stands for tourists (and another for “VIPs”). The border guards will make it absolutely clear where they want you to sit.  
  
Note there are restrictions: you are not allowed to bring any bags, not even camera bags, nor handbags or anything other than at best a clear plastic bag to put a bottle of water in – and that's also the only kind of drink you are allowed to carry in. Cameras are allowed, but are also subject to security checking. Bringing spare batteries is NOT allowed! You are allowed to bring a mobile phone and can use it as a camera but there won't be any reception (it's jammed at the border).
  
It may be a bit of a hassle to get through all these security procedures, but it runs fairly smoothly – except on busy weekends when the jostling crowds can become too much (avoid that – go on a weekday!). 
  
At least admission is free
  
All this applies to the Indian side. It's a bit quieter on the Pakistani side, smaller crowds with fewer tourists, and the approach is a little less hassle, but the same security rules apply. Apparently the Pakistanis charge a small admission fee. 
   
Times: the ceremony starts a bit before dusk, so can vary by time of year. Best check ahead. And make sure to be there early to allow for all the walking and the security checks and to make sure you can get a decent seat. 
  
In the summer bring sun protection and plenty of water. In winter a jumper may be a good idea, as it can get chilly in the evenings.
 
      
Time required: the ceremony as such lasts only about 20 minutes or so, but you have to be seated well before it commences and pass through the tight security procedures beforehand, so it can all add up to about two hours, also including the slow-moving crowds exiting afterwards. In addition, driving there from Amritsar and back takes about 30-45 minutes each way. 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Amritsar
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Amritsar and India in general. 
  
  
   
  • Wagah 01 - approaching the borderWagah 01 - approaching the border
  • Wagah 02 - border fortificationsWagah 02 - border fortifications
  • Wagah 03 - proud security forceWagah 03 - proud security force
  • Wagah 04 - border security doggiesWagah 04 - border security doggies
  • Wagah 05 - taking seats for the ceremonyWagah 05 - taking seats for the ceremony
  • Wagah 06 - oh when the guards come marching inWagah 06 - oh when the guards come marching in
  • Wagah 07 - soldiers with headphonesWagah 07 - soldiers with headphones
  • Wagah 08 - gates closed and ready for the ceremonyWagah 08 - gates closed and ready for the ceremony
  • Wagah 09 - Pakistani outfitsWagah 09 - Pakistani outfits
  • Wagah 10 - at the readyWagah 10 - at the ready
  • Wagah 11 - the show beginsWagah 11 - the show begins
  • Wagah 12 - aggressive posturingWagah 12 - aggressive posturing
  • Wagah 13 - lowering of the flagsWagah 13 - lowering of the flags
  • Wagah 14 - foldingWagah 14 - folding
  • Wagah 15 - shouting at the folded flagWagah 15 - shouting at the folded flag
  • Wagah 16 - aftershow partyWagah 16 - aftershow party
  • Wagah 17 - on the other sideWagah 17 - on the other side
  • Wagah 18 - the actual gate for commercial transborder trafficWagah 18 - the actual gate for commercial transborder traffic
  
  
  
  
  
  

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