Day 134 (2): The Ministry of Silly Walks
Atari Travel Blog› entry 181 of 260 › view all entries
For the afternoon I had booked a tour to the Wagah border. Together with a Spanish and a French couple I shared a car to Attari, the site of the only official border crossing between India and Pakistan.
The two countries haven't exactly been close friends since Pakistan split off from India in 1947. The countries have gone to war three times in the past 50 years and to this day they are eyeing each other with a certain level of distrust and contempt. This is translated into an almost preposterous daily ceremony when the border between the two countries closes for the day.
Thousands of people come to the ceremony every day, chanting patriotic slogans and waving flags. I was impressed by the huge turnout. You would think that after fifty years the popularity of this daily ritual would have waned, but no, the stands were packed to the rafters.
Because of the Ramadan the Pakistani stands were rather empty. There are separate stands for men and women and while the male stand was about half-full, though the spectators tried hard to be as vocal as possible. The female stand contained less than 20 spectators, all of which seemed rather subdued.
Although Hindustan (India) also segregates men and women to different stands, at least the women here are allowed to participate in the ceremony. Something which has turned into a provocative display as hundreds of women dance in the street to popular Hindi tunes, only pausing to run to the border gates carrying huge Indian flags.
From the Pakistani side women, wearing all-covering burqas, can only stand and watch and marvel at such 'freedoms'.
The first hour or so serves as a prelude to the ceremony. Loud Hindi pop blares from the speakers, while hundreds of women dance in the streets. Every once in a while two people (usually children or women) run to the border carrying a huge Indian flag). On the Pakistani side there is no dancing or flag waving, but they are playing Pakistani pop at an equally loud level. In fact, it seems the Pakistani have a better sound system, as their music regularly drowned out the Indian music.
Then a group of soldiers emerged from the office. All wearing well-groomed moustaches and clad in almost preposterous looking khaki uniforms, with a large orange Mohawk on their hats (the Pakistani soldiers wear similar uniforms, only black, and sport even larger moustaches).
An MC takes the mike and starts shouting 'Hindustan Zindabad' (Long live Hindustan) and the crowds quickly join in. The Pakistani do the same from their end (though obviously they chant Pakistan, rather than Hindustan) and for a while it is a contest of just which audience can be the loudest. Again, the Pakistanis have a slight disadvantage due to Ramadan, but they put up a good fight.
Then the microphone is given to one of the soldiers who lets out a loud howl. At the Pakistani side the same is done and it becomes a contest who has the longest breath and can maintain his howl the longest. This is repeated a couple of times before one of the soldiers seemingly has enough of it and goes over to the border to teach the Pakistanis a lesson.
What ensues is best described as a combination of a Maori Haka and Monty Phython's sketch of 'The Ministry of Silly Walks'.
This ritual is repeated about a dozen times as one by one the soldiers do their little dance routine at the border. Then when all the soldiers have faced their Pakistani counterparts, the howlers have done all their howling, the crowds have done their chanting, it is time to lower the flags.
There may be a lot of hostility between Pakistan and India, and this ceremony is mainly focused on infusing patriotism amongst its spectators, amongst the soldiers there seems to be a lot of mutual respect.
A salute, a handshake, and then the border gates close again, the border is closed for the day, only to be opened again the next day for the whole ritual to be repeated again.