Thursday, April 26, 2012

Desi Traveller-Wagah

A visit to Amritsar is incomplete without a late afternoon dash to the Indo-Pak border at Wagah to witness the ceremonial lowering of flags and closing of the gates at sunset by troopers of India’s Border Security Force and their opposites, the Pakistani Rangers.  The drill lasts less than thirty minutes during which it is patriotism at its competitive loudest.

The event draws sizable crowds on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. The hoi- polloi (and those not blessed with the genes that confer the ability to pull strings in the subcontinent) have to sit on specially constructed viewing galleries about forty metres from the gates. The galleries fill up quickly and one must reach the venue well in advance to grab a vantage position. (It is also necessary to factor in the time one needs to walk/ sprint the last kilometre or so from the point after which vehicles are not allowed). The blessed ones- on both sides, of course- can drive up to a parking area which is very close to the gates and from where it is a short walk  to their seats.

The ceremony is a huge draw on both sides of the border. Men and women
sit separately on the Pakistani side.
The ceremony begins with colourfully dressed troopers on both sides marching to the gates. The pace and long strides are meant convey an aggressive don’t- mess-with-us message to the other side. They goose-step before coming to a halt.  The heels are kicked so high off the ground that it is a small wonder that no soldier has kicked himself in the face or –worse- the face of his opposite if he got too close.( As no incidents have been reported, it must be assumed that due precautions have been taken.) Then, amid full-throated roars of “Vande  Mataram”  and “ Bharat Mata ki Jai”  (“Pakistan Zindabad”  across the gates) from the crowds, the soldiers growl, glower and gesticulate at each other in a perfectly synchronized , grandstanding display of aggression.(This is supposed to be toned down version of what it was till a few years ago.).  Then the flags are taken down and the gates slammed shut as loudly as possible.

End of ceremony.

Guns at the ready, two commandos stare unblinkingly at each other as the
drill progresses and the flags are lowered. After the ceremony has ended,
the crowds disperse quickly. Those who wish can linger near the gates for
photographs. On the Pakistani side, the guards allowed the public to come
upto the gate and peek into India. On the other hand, the guards on
our side kept people at a discreet distance. The biggest regret was the
westerly sun which ruined a lot of photo ops. 
Statutory Warning: Travelling to Amritsar and not going to Wagah is looked upon the same way as not visiting the Taj  Mahal in Agra. Your near and dear would need an alibi that can pass an inquisition; else be prepared for your sanity to be called to question. Or patriotism. Or both. 

As far as spectacles go, it is an impressive display that attracts  large crowds every day. However, that day, I overheard a remark made by a foreigner to his companion, “It’s impressive, but what’s the point in all this?”. This got me thinking differently.

On my way to Wagah, at some distance from Amritsar, I passed a sign that said, “Lahore 42 km”.  Thus, I am assuming that the distance between Amritsar and Lahore must be between 55 and 60 km. To put it in perspective, it is about the distance  between Pune and Lonavla, less than distance between Delhi and Panipat, Bangalore and Tumkur, Chennai  and Arakkonam,… I can go on, but I am sure that I have made my point.

Does it have to be so difficult to travel between Amritsar and Lahore that one must settle for an afternoon at Wagah?  I find the following itinerary for a short trip far more appealing:

 Morning: Amritsar-Golden Temple(with Langar) and Jallianwala Bagh,
Afternoon: Lahore- A half-day of  sightseeing,   Lahore’s famed street food early evening, head back to Amritsar, have kulfi near the Golden Temple and off to bed by 1000pm.

A longer trip should offer even more enchanting promises.

I think there are enough years left in me to see this happen. Anyone care to join me?