On our third day in Amritsar, we purchased our onward train tickets and hired a taxi to take us to the Pakistan border, just over thirty kilometers away. A guide came along, who was our rickshaw driver when we first arrived in the city. An older gentleman who continually reminded me of my grandfather, this think well lived man gave us a smirk with every comment and had a story in every one of his wrinkles. On the way, we stopped at the Khalasa College, a striking building on a three hundred acre campus. Founded in 1892, the college has made enormous contributions to Indian society in the form of politicians, freedom fighters, armed forces generals as well as scientists, Olympians, actors and writers. It began as a Sikh college and houses a small placed of worship in its backyard.
From here we drove out of the city, west towards Attari, the Indian town closest to the Pakistan border. We learned that the road we drove on, Grand Trunk Road, used to be the only crossing between Pakistan and India and is one of the longest roads in the world, stretching 2500 kilometer from Kabul, Afghanistan to India’s far city of Kolkata. The road in part is around 2000 years old, while the full length of today’s “GT Road” has existed since the 16th Century.
As we were fairly early for the ceremonies, we looked through the town of Attari and its train station, and then headed to a roadside Dhaba for lunch. After a wonderful Punjabi thali and our first serving of lassi, a sweet and incredibly rich yogurt type drink, we headed to the border.
I’ve been excited about this excursion since I first read about it, at home in Canada. Other than visiting the Golden Temple, this was the main reason we made the relatively long journey to Amritsar. It is called the Wagah border ceremony (Wagah is the nearest town on the Pakistan side). Each day, the Indian and Pakistani border patrol put on an energy filled display of patriotism, in front of hundreds of screaming citizens that fill the stands on either side of the border. While going through security, we bumped into a fellow traveler who hailed from France. In true Canadian style, we waited for her to get through security before following the path to find seats. As we walked up the stands, our new friend, Clem, showed the guard her VIP ticket and was ushered to the left. Since we didn’t have a VIP ticket, Chantal and I were told to sit in the foreigner stands, which were in fact fairly good seats on their own. Clem begged the guard to let us follow her, and he kindly agreed. This led to us having the best seats possible, only a few meters from the border and its gates. Beaming and feeling incredibly fortunate, we soaked up the energy that was the ceremony. Proud Indian youths ran their flag up to the border and back again while blaring speakers played lively music and the stands roared with excitement. Between song changes, there was a second or two of silence, in which you could hear the Pakistan’s speakers feeding its people with equaled fervour.
At the start of the ceremony several guards marched towards the border, first individually, then in pairs. In time with the beating of the drum, the guards stomped their feet dramatically and kicked their legs high enough that their hats were disturbed. With an amusing adjustment of their hat, every bit of movement was filled with drama. After some call and response from the crowd, the gates were flung open and two guards, one from each side, entered the small strip of “no man’s land”, aggressively shook hands, then marched away from each other. The gates were then thrown shut, in an almost humorous fashion. After some more chanting and patriotic singing, the process was repeated but this time; the countries’ respectful flags were lowered, diagonally, crossing each other. The flags were lowered very slowly and always perfectly level with each other. After folding the flags and another abrupt handshake, the gates were slammed shut and the ceremony concluded. This ceremony has been occurring daily since 1959 and displays both the rivalry between the countries as well as their cooperation. One thing we are not used to, is the amount of military presence. There were snipers perched all around the ceremony and guards with semi automatics everywhere you looked.
After getting taking some photos, we said goodbye to Clem and met out guide outside. We drove back and made a quick stop at a very unique temple. This Hindu temple was more like a maze, walled with mirrored mosaics. The temple is a scale model of a Hindu pilgrimage that you can walk through in about thirty minutes. A few times, we had to crawl on our hands and knees or slide through a hole in the wall to enter the next room, all of which had a spiritual purpose. The temple was built in 1989 for the woman saint, Mata Lal Devi, pictured on the left, who lived off of only fruit and water. She gained many devotees and passed away in 1994.
Our guide was very knowledgeable about the Hindu and Sikh faiths and was able to give us a good understanding both in the temple and at the college. We ended our night by bargaining for a pretty crumby room, but one that was near the train station.