Hundreds of Indian Sikhs make historic pilgrimage to Pakistan

Pilgrims queueing yesterday to visit the shrine of Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak in Kartarpur, Pakistan, after a landmark deal that allows Indian Sikhs access to one of their religion's holiest sites.
Pilgrims queueing yesterday to visit the shrine of Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak in Kartarpur, Pakistan, after a landmark deal that allows Indian Sikhs access to one of their religion's holiest sites.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KARTARPUR (Pakistan) • Hundreds of Indian Sikhs made a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan yesterday, crossing through a white gate to reach one of their religion's holiest sites, after a landmark deal between the two countries separated by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Cheering Sikhs walked joyfully along the road from Dera Baba Nanak in India towards the new immigration hall that would allow them to pass through a secure land corridor into Pakistan, in a rare example of cooperation between the nuclear-armed countries divided by decades of enmity.

Buses were waiting on the Pakistani side to carry them along the corridor to the shrine of Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak, which lies in Kartarpur, a small town just 4km inside Pakistan where he is believed to have died.

"Generally, people say that God is everywhere. But this walk feels like I am going to directly seek blessings from Guru Nanak," Mr Surjit Singh Bajwa told Agence France-Presse as he walked towards the corridor, crying as he spoke.

At 78, he is older than India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought three wars and nearly ignited a fourth earlier this year.

For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, the white-domed shrine is one of their holiest sites.

However, for Indian Sikhs, it has remained tantalisingly close - so close they can stand at the border and gaze at its four cupolas - but out of reach for decades.

When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border, while most of the region's Sikhs remained on the other side.

Since then, the perennial state of enmity between India and Pakistan has been a constant barrier to those wanting to visit the temple, known in Sikhism as a gurdwara.

Pilgrims on both sides of the border echoed the hope that the corridor might herald a thawing in the relationship between India and Pakistan.

"When it comes to government-to-government relations, it is all hate and when it comes to people-to-people ties, it is all love," one of the Sikh pilgrims, who did not give his name, told Pakistani state TV as he crossed.

Among the first pilgrims to pass through the gate was former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, who told Pakistani state media that it was a "big moment".

"I hope relations between Pakistan and India will improve after the opening of Kartarpur," he said.

The opening has even inspired a singular message of gratitude from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan for "respecting the sentiments of India".

Mr Khan greeted pilgrims at the shrine, and in televised images could be seen speaking with Mr Manmohan Singh.

The deal allows for up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to cross. The opening comes just days ahead of Guru Nanak's 550th birthday on Tuesday - an anniversary of huge significance for the global Sikh community.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 10, 2019, with the headline 'Hundreds of Indian Sikhs make historic pilgrimage to Pakistan'. Print Edition | Subscribe