We arrived in Amritsar and headed straight for the border with Pakistan, 30 km west of the city, to witness the nightly "closing of the border" ceremony. This ceremony is attended by a surprising number of people on the Indian side, however the evening we were there, there were very few people in the Pakistani seats.
The buses and cars are required to park some distance from the border buildings, but because Anil's brother, Col. Ajay had made prior arrangements, we were able to proceed further into the official zone and were seated in the VIP seating area. As you will learn, this had added benefits - we did not have to sit in the packed stadium-style seating when all the festivities began.
Once again, I will resort to the entry in the Lonely Planet because I think they describe the spectacle so well:
"Each evening, just before sunset, the Indian and Pakistani military meet at the border to engage in an extraordinary 20-minute ceremony of pure theater. It is conducted with machismo, pride and posturing on both sides, but is also acted out in unbelievable harmony. It starts around 5:30 in the summer. Arrive early to get a good seat.
The stage is divided by two sets of gates, one for each country, with the national flag fluttering above. The audience is similarly divided, with everyone here to cheer for their side in a spectacle so popular that grandstands have been built. A fleet of buses, taxis and autorickshaws bring thousands of people to the border.
With a bellow from each guardroom, a squad stomps out onto the road. The drill is to parade up and down in front of your home audience, stamp your feet, throw in some yells and , once puffed up, march off to face the other side with scowling faces, pumped-up chests and clenched fists.
The gates are flung open. The commanding officers march up to each other and perform a brief handshake and salute. Then the guard parties goose-step to the boarder and wheel to face their flags; Indian and Pakistani soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder, only centimeters apart.
Bugles blow and the flags are lowered slowly so that neither flag is higher that the other, implying a national superiority. The flags are quickly folded and marched back to their respective guardrooms. The gates are slammed shut and the audiences surge onto the stage to be photographed with the scenery and the fancily dressed, tall and handsome soldiers."
What isn't adequately described here is the ear-splitting patriotic music that is played on loud-speakers while the spectators walk through narrow walkways to be inspected by the mounted BSF - Border Security Force guards and then seated in the stands. For at least 45 minutes the music blasted the audience and attempted to drown out the equally loud music coming from the Pakistani side of the border. Some people brought along large flags and took turns running up and down in front of the stands waving the flags. Eager friends and family were on hand to capture the "runs" on still and video cameras. Then we noticed a man dressed in civilian clothes leading cheers from the crowds using a mircophone much like you would see at a sporting event. People were shouting "Jai Hind" and "Hindustan Zindabad" (Hurrah India - Love Live India). As I mentioned, the crowds on the Indian side were much, much louder, but the people in the Pakistani stands did their best to support their "side". We could hear shouts of "Pakistan Zindabad" and "Allah Akbar" (Love Live Pakistan - God Is Great).
I have to go on record here as one who is not at all in favor of this rah-rah-rah behavior by the spectators at the border. There is enough animosity between the peoples of India and Pakistan without pumping up the patriotic zeal in the face of the citizens on the other side of the gate. For the six months we have been in India, we have been reading almost daily about the tensions between the two countries over the disputed border region and the nuclear testing that has been conducted on both sides. It seems to me that the carnival atmosphere that exists prior to the official ceremony only serves to inflame the feelings of separateness and distrust. There are so many young impressionable children in the crowds, too young to understand the issues but only too happy to run right up to the border and wave their country's flag in the face of equally young citizens on the other side of the gate.
Editor's Note: I guess we have to allow my dear wife to stand on her soap box!!
Earlier this year, the Samjhauta Express, a train that runs from Lahore (Pakistan) to Delhi (India) and back, was bombed and 64 people were killed. It is a testament to the willingness of the two governments that these trains were allowed to cross the border again after years of being prevented from doing so. Most of the people who ride the train were visiting family members and friends, separated when the sub-continent was partitioned into India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947. This year will mark the 60th Anniversary of the Independence of India/Pakistan and the end of British Rule. It's especially fitting that all attempts be made to foster understanding and peace between the two nations, this year especially and for all years to come.
Once the official ceremony started, I was caught up in the uniqueness of the event. Yes, the soldiers stomped, grimaced, shouldered their rifles and marched rigidly, but they also opened the gates, saluted, shook hands and lowered the flags in unison. I can't imagine this happens at too many borders where rival governments are developing atomic weapons and threatening to use them in self-defense or on each other. I was moved and proud that this open-gate, hand-shaking gesture occurs each and every night.
If the audiences are so intent on celebrating their country, and that in itself isn't a bad thing, perhaps the cheering and flag waving could be done before hand, out of sight of the actual border and the crowds asked to observe the official closing ceremonies in a more solemn manner.
Whatever your feelings about what I've described, it's something that should not be missed if you are ever in the area. The uniforms, the incredibly tall, slim soldiers and the precision that is employed is definitely worth seeing.