Watching Wahga

Welcome to Wahga-Attari Border, separating two villages: Wahga in Pakistan and Attari in India. Situated 28km from Amritsar and 29km from Lahore, it is one of only five crossing points along the 2,900 km long border.

The Grand Trunk Road passes through Wahga’s monumental border gate. It is the only official road link between Wahga and Attari. 

This border is home to the world's most spectacular border ceremony, taking place every day before dusk. Locals and tourists alike queue to witness the famous flag-lowering ceremony, marking the formal nightly close of the border. The ceremony is a bucket-list event for many South Asian people.

In early 1947, after the second world war, victorious but weak Britain decided to part from India.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called India "the brightest jewel in the crown" of the British Empire.

Leaders of the Indian Independence movement requested territorial separation. Religious separation was the primary reason. Pakistan's Founding Father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah lead the Muslim League party to create a Muslim-majority nation.

In early 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten sent Sir Cyril Radcliffe, an intelligent lawyer to divide Hindu-majority lands from Muslim-majority ones. In an attempt to divide the two nations. Despite Radcliffe having no experience of border-making, he completed the task within five weeks.

The journey to reach the border was not an easy one. We passed through several security gates where cars were being checked. The effort symbolises both nations still working to protect their citizens from potential conflict. The reward at the end was magnificent. A 400ft flag pole towers above the crowd, where a grand Pakistani flag moved gently with the breeze. The Ranger accompanying me informed me that the flag size is larger than India's on the other side. Me and my team enter the amphitheatre where we see a pair of gates separating India from Pakistan. From our vantage point near the front of the stands on the Pakistan side, our view was dominated by the cheering crowd on the other side of the border. It was quite disconcerting at first. 

Founded in 1959, India's Border Security Force and Pakistan's Rangers partake in the famous flag-lowering ceremony daily.

Before sunrise, above the twin gates, you see both nations' flags raised signifying the border is open. Very few locals or pedestrians cross this border. On an average day only a few dozen locals and border-crossing tourists go back and forth, but the open gates allow for the steady flow of commerce destined for elsewhere. 

The Pakistani Rangers: a paramilitary law enforcement organisation responsible for securing important sites. Dressed in traditional Shalvaar Kameez, draped in prestigious medals and wearing fantail hats.

As we enter  the Azan, the 4th call of prayer, can be heard echoing over the amphitheatre. The quiet reminder that Pakistan is an Islamic State makes the diverse and desegregated Ranger force all the more impressive. The many Hindu and Sikh soldiers visible among the regiment display a unity forged in service to the county and reminds the audience of the rich tapestry of Pakistani heritage.

Our MC is locked in a good-natured battle with his Indian counterpart. "Pakistan Zindabad" he shouts, before starting a game of verbal volleyball with the crowd, "Pakistan" he cries,

"Zindabad" responds the crowd, with a simultaneous fist pump. It means ‘Long Live Pakistan’.

He is willing his audience to shout louder than those on the opposite side, from where we can hear the response "Jai Hind", ‘Long Live India’, but the sound is almost drowned out by the speakers. Another technological game of one upmanship. 

Segregated seating arrangement means families and single women sit separately to single men. A festive and patriotic feeling in the crowd is palpable; comparable to a cricket match. The crowd sings along to famous national anthems, and chants back patriotic slogans.

Two female officers open the show, marching towards the gate that separates the countries. The women have served a total of 15 years between them.

Rangers entertain with synchronised movements, flinging their rifles over their shoulders, sculpting their moustaches, and raising their fist and eyebrows to mark their presence. Counterparts mirror the actions, competing to see who can do each one best, although it is not clear who exactly is keeping score - or how. 

The unintentional side effect of the ceremony is to expose the resemblance between the two sides, which cannot be obscured even by the fierce patriotism on display.

There are two unique aspects of the Rangers' movement throughout the ceremony. The first is "Goose-marching", known as 'Prade' in Urdu, where rangers lift one leg towards their forehead. One soldier is a crowd-pleaser. Unparalleled in his goose-marching! He can straight kick his leg where his foot passes his forehand.

The second is the echo through the amphitheatre from the coordinated foot-stamp. The metal sole encounters the ground with such force.  The sound echoes through the amphitheatre. The recoiling effect resonating through each Ranger's being.

The ceremony starts with closed twin gates. Midway through the ceremony, when the gates open, and the cheer from both crowds is the loudest. I felt the this cheer symbolised a desire for inter-faith harmony despite the neighbours' tumultuous relationship.

As the sun sets, Rangers on both sides rush to the flagpole keen to lower the flag. This makes it appear like they are racing, only for the Rangers to lower their flags at the same rate — a symbol of equality and mutual respect between both nations.

Rangers coordinate lowering each nation's flags, signifying the end of the ceremony and any movement at the border. The closing of the gates is known as "Beating Retreat". Close to the 16th-century British military tradition that recalled patrolling units back to their bases. Evidence that a piece of British India stands the test of time with both countries.

As the ceremony ends the men in uniform respectfully shake hands, still trying to size each other. The only time where there is any physical contact between India and Pakistan. Almost symbolic of the relationship between the two nations. A delicate relationship yet well managed by a level of mutual civility. The ritual stood the test of time. It has survived through diplomatic disputes, wars and mutual misunderstandings.

The flag is then folded and carried for the crowd to see. The Rangers on both sides march away from the gates further into their respective countries. The Pakistani Rangers see a large portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He had the best seat for the ceremony.

I too stare at Jinnah's portrait and wonder what he would have thought of the ceremony. I hope for a balance of patriotism with a desire for inter-faith harmony. Yet, this might be my perspective of the event.


Recent Posts

See All