Today we took a taxi from Amritsar to the border with Pakistan. On the India side it’s at a town called Wagah. The Pakistan side is Atari. We have no plans at all to cross the border, we simply want to watch the proceedings at the border closing ceremony.
We’ve been carefully watching the news and the updates from the UK’s Foreign Office as to whether it was safe to come here. These two countries share a conflict ridden history that began in 1947 when Britain withdrew from India and Pakistan was created by splitting the Punjab in two. Here, close to the border the tension often spills over into violence.
Regardless of these tensions, the countries have come together and everyday host a highly emotive closing ceremony that takes place at sundown. This is an actual real border crossing, and we do see folks dragging wheelie bags from India down the road, through the ceremony area, across the border.
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Where to Stay in Amritsar
There are a host of places to stay in Amritsar – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Amritsar, mid-range places to stay in Amritsar, and budget accommodation in Amritsar.
Welcomhotel by ITC Hotels, Amritsar: The Welcomhotel by ITC Hotels is located close to central Amritsar and is a world-class hotel that features 101 rooms each equipped with satellite TV, a minibar, coffee/tea maker, mini-fridge, iron, sound-proofing, and a private bathroom with hairdryer and other toiletries. This five-star Amritsar hotel has a pool and WiFi accessible by guests along with services such as currency exchange, valet dry-cleaning, spa and salon, laundry, and a doctor-on-call. The Welcomhotel is perfect for a luxury stay in Amristar. See more about Amritsar’s Welcomhotel rooms and rates here.
SureStay Heritage Walk by Best Western Amritsar, Amritsar: The SureStay Heritage Walk is situated at an excellent location right at the heart of the city of Amritsar. This four-star Amritsar accommodation has rooms that include a flat-screen TV with cable channels, a private bathroom with a hairdryer, linens, iron/iron board, safety deposit box, mini-bar, and a coffee/tea maker. The SureStay Heritage Walk in Amristar also provides guests free WiFi, luxury car rental, and in-room dining services. Café Sure at the hotel is perfect for a fine-dining experience with a multi-country-cuisine menu. Check room rates and availability here.
Hotel Aura Grand by Levelup, Amritsar:Located just 600m from central Amritsar, Hotel Aura Grand is conveniently surrounded by Amritsar’s top attractions. The hotel features rooms that have a mini-fridge, flat-screen TV, air-conditioning, and a private bathroom with a shower. Amristar’s Hotel Aura Grand also has a restaurant along with free WiFi throughout the hotel. They also offer laundry services and a doctor on call. The Hotel Aura Grand is a clean and comfortable accommodation perfect for your visit to Amritsar. Want to read more reviews and check room rates
Amritsar to Wagah
From where we were staying in Amritsar it’s a 30 kilometre or about 45 minute drive to Wagah. We’d arranged the taxi through a travel agency we found in the next block to our hotel. The cost? We paid 800 INR for the return trip. Our driver would drop us off, wait and then return us to wherever we wanted to be in Amritsar.
We were dropped off some distance from the border itself. There’s a car park of sorts, where hawkers and stalls are selling bottled water, drinks and snacks. (Take water, its hot here!) We receive countless offers of face paint artwork – a copy of the Indian flag of course. Of course, we decline, more a case of being concerned that its permanent ink that they’re using than anything else!
It’s an easy pleasant ride. I mean, pretty much anything is in an air conditioned car right? If there are buses that you can catch here then we didn’t find them anywhere in either Amritsar or on the Internet. There’s also the thought that if anything does go wrong, I’d like to be in a position to get out of here quickly!
Arriving in Wagah
With a wave from our driver, who tells us that he’ll be waiting when it’s over, we head off. Not, of course, before taking a photo of his license plate. We learned that a long time ago. There are lots of white cars here of indiscriminate vintage and we’d like to have a hope of finding him again. We’ve already paid, which is a slight concern, but the travel agency we used wouldn’t send him if we didn’t pay.
Now, we walk for about 10 minutes, simply following the stream of people. This is a busy place that we’re heading to and the anxiety mounts that we’ll actually get there in time or be able to see when we get there.
Security checks in Wagah
There are regular checks. Well, there are regular check points. No one actually checks anything until we arrive at the specific security check point. Then we’re segregated into the usual male/female security checking. It’s no more intrusive than it is anywhere else in India. I’ve left my backpack in the room. All I carry is a bottle of water and my camera. There’s a pat down that misses everything, but heck at least it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable.
Then, once through security. We’re segregated again. This time we foreigners are sent to the foreign tourist area.
Seating arrangements in the border ceremony
There’s a hierarchy here. Most important of all are the VIPs. They have nice seats, right in front of the action. There are no foreign tourists in that area. These are all Indian dudes and dudesses in suits and saris. They look particularly wealthy. There also seems to be a lower VIP area.
More nice-ish seats and its still relatively close the action. Then there’s us. In the foreign tourist part of the grand stand. To our right as we watch what’s going on, the remainder of the Indian tourists.
We’re all sat on the concrete steps, because it’s hard to tell if they’re steps or seats. We’ve arrived, it seems, in plenty of time. The stadium like seats face the road to the border, the border is off to our left. Across from us are the Border Security Force (BSF) buildings. Members of the Indian Border Security Force are generally milling around. There’s also a large number of what look like domestic tourists down there as well.
And a man on the roof with a drum kit. Ohhh Kayyy.
The ceremony begins.
It takes rather a while to start off. Most of the time we’re not quite sure where we should be looking. It becomes a little more obvious when the music starts. We’re all bopping along to the Jai Ho music from Slumdog Millionaire. And it’s kind of cool. Even though we can’t really figure out what’s going on.
The domestic tourists, are then given huge Indian flags on poles and individually and in groups they begin running backwards and forwards to the border. Cue “crowd goes wild.” Seriously. The crowd goes wild. We foreign tourists mostly act bewildered.
Still the music goes on. The ceremony hasn’t actually started yet. Because for that we need the official folks from the Border Security Force. We know that they’re official because they’re in starched khaki uniforms, there’s white and red trim on their uniforms. They wear turbans with HUGE fans of red and gold. This is their ceremonial uniform.
The Indian Border Security Force – the BSF
The members of the BSF are attractive, they’re tall and incredibly athletic. They almost ignore the crowd, focusing instead on their Pakistani counterparts. The turbans with their fan treatment serve to make them look even taller.
Opposing Pakistani security forces wear a similar uniform that is coloured in black and silver. They also have turbans, this time with black and silver fans adorning them.
The Border Ceremony Choreography
The Indian BSF team march up and down towards the border itself. And when I say march, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the quickest quick march you’ll ever see. High kicking, massively high energy. It’s exhausting just to watch. It’s funny. But I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh or not. Someone might shoot me. They’re armed. They might throw me out. So I try and keep a straight face.
Rather coolly, there are a couple of women in the BSF too.
It goes on. And on. And on. For quite some time.
The ceremony is very carefully choreographed, with the Pakistanis doing something very, very similar on their side of the border. For two countries that don’t get on, they’ve managed to get on very well to put this together!
This ceremony is carefully organized so that each country shows force. They repeatedly head towards the border at full pelt, aggressively, as if to make across the line. But they stop. They glare. They stamp their feet, so hard it must hurt. But, they NEVER cross the line. Then, they raise their arms up to shoulder height. And very, very deliberately point their thumbs to the ground in a dismissal of their foe.
It’s designed to show strength and to put fear into the folks on the other side of the border. There aren’t many folks on the other side, but this Indian side is jam packed.
It is a spectacular spectacle.
The Ceremony End
I’d have to watch this several times to figure out the exact moment it comes to an end, because it happens so quickly we almost miss it. One member of the BSF does his high kicking, quick march up to the border. An opposing Pakistani security force member does the same. They shake hands quickly. And then they snarl at each other. Others slam the gates shut. That’s right, they slam the gates shut. Too hard it appears because they slam back open again. That’s a cue to slam them shut again.
All the while the drums are playing. The drummer seems to be the only member of the BSF who’s worked up a sweat, so fit are these guys.
The crowd is going crazy. All that remains for the ceremony is for the two flags to be lowered. And we’re done, the flag is folded and taken back to the BSF offices.
Apart from photos of course. Lots of the domestic tourists rush up to the gates for a photo. We aim for one of the BSF guys. Who is HUGE. I mean gigantic. I know this is a just a show of force, but seriously. I’m scared.
How you can see the ceremony without attending
We found out about this border closing ceremony from that good old world traveller, Michael Palin. He describes the ceremony as “carefully choreographed contempt”. The show of force is impressive and there’s a lot of nationalism here on the Indian side. There’s no one that we can really see on the Pakistani side. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any hatred. This is a spectacle for the tourists. Domestic and Foreign. And here the BSF in this ceremony seems to be focused on enabling the audience to show their love for India rather than anything else.
The video I have of the ceremony is mainly of the back of someone’s head. But the absolute best video is this advertisement from Fevikwik, which was premiered while we were travelling around India. Watch this and if you’ve been to Wagah it will take you right back. If you’ve not been to Wagah, then you’ll want to head there right now, because this is it.
If you’re staying in Amristar we recommend taking the Heritage Walk around Amristar to learn about the history of the city and the region. There’s more on that here.
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