It’s not every day that you find yourself surrounded by hundreds of Indian women, young and old, dancing to Jai Ho, in front of an audience of several thousand on the India-Pakistan border.
The Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony has become something of a must-do for any visitor to Amritsar. It is just 20 km from the holy city.
I am not sure when it changed from being a sombre beating retreat ceremony (if indeed it ever was) to being a patriotic spectacle enjoyed by so many.
It starts with women (not men) from the crowd lining up to take their turn walking in the middle of the stadium with the Indian flag. An officer from the Border Security Force in camouflage gear, moustache and sunglasses (who reminds us both of Freddie Mercury) acts like crowd control and warm-up man combined, getting the crowds to cheer louder and applaud on time.
Then the music starts and women dance on the street, arms in the air, a celebratory atmosphere. Every age, every type of clothing, from full decorated sari to jeans and T-shirt. I decide to join in, even though my dancing is appalling, so I jump up and down a bit, follow other women’s moves with their arms, and smile a lot. It is joyful.
I am not sure why it is women who are allowed to dance, and not men, though our young Indian guide is quick to point out the discrimination on the Pakistani side of the border, where men and woman have been segregated.
(It turns out that she is also the best driver we have had in five months’ travelling – and the only female driver in that time.)
Jai Ho, the famous song from Slumdog Millionaire, is my favourite. To be fair, it’s the only one I know. Later, I don’t even recognise their national anthem.
Just before all this has started, a large bus has crossed over the border into Pakistan. Our guide explains that this is quite exciting. This is her 72nd border ceremony and she has not tired of it yet.
She says that the BSF dogs will ‘perform’ for us. They walk through with their officers, and ‘bow’ to one side of the street, maybe to the flag or something. I am quite glad that is all the performing they do. One is a handsome Alsatian befitting of his post, the other two are short labradors who look like they have eaten a chapati or two too many.
After this, the proper ceremony gets under way. This is the serious side. Well, as serious as it gets. Army officers (are they really fighting men?) in beige uniforms and rooster-like headgear march up and down, sometimes goose-stepping in a Basil Fawlty (‘Don’t mention the war’) way and stomping on the ground in time with the beat of the music.
Another officer was making long calls on the microphone, to which the crowd would respond with shouts of ‘Hindustan’.
On the other side of the border, we can see the Pakistan crowd, much smaller than ours and not so noisy. India and Pakistan then have a competition to see who can untie a knot the quickest. Pakistan wins. It seems that is usually the case. No one cares, probably because they can’t quite see the detail as we are looking straight into the setting sun.
All this is now a peaceful and fun way of marking the border between India and Pakistan, to formally close the border each night as they take down their flags. It is strange that it should be so. We have been to Jallianwala Bagh (the site of a massacre at the hands of a British General) and the Partition Museum to learn more about the violent time India faced in becoming independent of Great Britain.
Both places are within a short walk of the Golden Temple, which is what every visitor to Amritsar comes for. It’s not just the view of the temple which is beautiful, it is the whole mix of seeing Sikhs arriving for a special visit and worshipping. It’s a wonderful combination of colours, men with their turbans, women in their saris, and music, making it feel alive and spiritual.
And, one thing we noticed, there are no security checks. You can take photos (other than inside the main temple itself), you can carry your bags and bottles of water. It is so refreshing that they can trust us to come in peace – and markedly different to many places where there are so many rules and regulations that you don’t feel welcome at all.
At the end of the border ceremony, the crowds disperse in a slow, contented way, like they do after a large music concert or a football match, flags in hand, ‘I love my India’ baseball caps on, the three colours of the India flag painted on faces.
The sun sets on another memorable day in India.
What we have loved about India is seeing the character of each place shine through. Our last stop was Shimla, a world away from Amritsar (or, at least, an eight-hour scary drive on Indian roads away).
The colonial influence is there in the buildings and you have the cool, clear air of the mountains. More than that, though – and we haven’t seen it done anywhere else – is the pedestrianisation of their main town area. No tuk-tuks or motorbikes jostling for space. No cars hooting constantly. Just blissful peace and quiet.
They have also got on top of their litter problem in the main streets, and signs tell people not to smoke or spit in public.
The fact that cars cannot go up the small hilly streets does, however, mean that there is much work for delivery men to haul ridiculous quantities of goods up the hills to hotels and restaurants and other businesses. These skinny, wiry, dusty men carry way too much – for example, five boxed large TV screens; two gas cylinders; a huge sack of potatoes as well as a large box of apples balanced on the top of the potatoes as well as the carrier’s head. I mean, can they not invest in a sack truck?
It is very physical work, something we also observe in Amritsar. Here, we are back to what we fondly refer to as ‘real India’, the noisy, hooting, dirty chaos of tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, fruit barrows, beggars, barking dogs, and again the physical labour of men pushing crazy loads on ancient sets of wheels. Many a time we go down small grey grungy alleys (brightened with colourful fabric shops) with their dangling power cables, crumbling pavements, cows and dogs scavenging in the piles of rubbish and we think, ‘My God, it’s so Dickensian.’
And yet the people here have all been so friendly and welcoming. More welcoming than our budget hotel actually, but that’s another story. (Today, ‘complimentary breakfast’ could not extend to cornflakes as well as tea and coffee. Toast, yes, you could have with tea and coffee, but not cornflakes. That was a few rupees too far.)
Next stop, Delhi.