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It's showtime at India-Pakistan border

Peculiar ritual belies tension

India's Border Security Force, in light-colored uniforms, and Pakistani Rangers soldiers, in black, marched in August. India's Border Security Force, in light-colored uniforms, and Pakistani Rangers soldiers, in black, marched in August. (aman sharma/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WAGAH CROSSING, India-Pakistan border - If nations rose and fell according to their camp quotient and funny hats, then these rivals would still be locked in a stalemate.

Most every evening for nearly 60 years, a peculiar ritual has unfolded on what has been one of the world's most contentious borders.

As twilight approaches and the gates are about to close between India and Pakistan, the guards on either side face off in an elaborate show of martial bravado and chest-puffing that nonetheless includes that most basic of fraternal gestures: the handshake.

Hundreds of spectators from both countries cheer as their men in uniform strut, goose-step, and stamp their feet like impatient bulls. Individual guards on either side break ranks and power-walk toward one another as if to collide head-on, but stop just short of the invisible line dividing their homelands and glower fiercely through their mustaches.

Patriotic songs boom through loudspeakers as the national flags are lowered at exactly the same speed and the gates finally swing shut.

The tightly choreographed ceremony is part colonial pomp, part macho posturing, and part Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. The rowdy tourist crowds love it.

"Everything was just perfect," Rajat Kalia, an electrical engineer who lives in Delhi, said after a recent viewing. "It's impressive."

It is also, of course, a manifestation of a very real rivalry that has produced three bloody wars since the twin birth of India and Pakistan in 1947.

For half an hour at sunset each evening, the decades of enmity are sublimated in a mostly good-natured, almost comical competition between the men in black, with their fan-tailed headgear of the same color (Pakistan), and the men in khaki, whose hats are adorned with scarlet fan-tails (India).

The theatrics attract audience members from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. Grandstands on both sides quickly fill up, turning into a sea of colorful saris, tunics, and flapping flags.

Like a warm-up act before a sitcom taping, emcees on either side prime the crowd, getting the nationalistic juices flowing by leading chants of "Long live Pakistan!" and "Long live Mother India!"

Even schoolchildren pump their tiny fists.

There can be ugly moments. When a Pakistani passenger bus was allowed to cross the border back onto home turf one evening before the gate-closing ceremony began, some Indian spectators jeered: "Stop terrorism! Stop terrorism!" New Delhi accuses the Pakistani government of funding and aiding anti-Indian Kashmiri militants.

But the event soon became something of the relatively benign, Olympic-medal-count variety. Two volunteers were chosen from the Indian crowd to charge the gate-hoisting, large Indian flags. A pair of Pakistanis answered with their national colors, to thunderous applause.

Taking a stab at loving thy nuclear-armed neighbor, a recording on the Pakistani side crooned: "When hearts meet, when the divide is healed."

The original divide was that of Partition, the violent carving up of the subcontinent along religious lines into India and Pakistan when the British Empire pulled out in 1947.

Not long afterward, the archrivals instituted the border pas de deux still on display here at the Wagah crossing, which lies about 20 miles from the bustling Pakistani city of Lahore on one side and the Indian city of Amritsar on the other.

Over the decades, the ceremony has become such a fixture that, one guard said, it continued to be performed nightly during the most recent Indo-Pakistani war, in 1999, which was fought in the snowy heights of the Himalayas.

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