Hundreds of Indian Sikhs made a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan on Saturday, 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.
Some fathers ran, carrying their children on their shoulders.
Sikh pilgrims can now travel to the Kartarpur shrine through a special visa-free corridor from India
Buses were waiting on the Pakistani side to carry them along the corridor to the shrine to Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, which lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometres (2.5 miles) inside Pakistan where he is believed to have died.
“Generally people say that God is everywhere. But this walk feels like I’m going to directly seek blessings from Guru Nanak,” Surjit Singh Bajwa told AFP as he walked towards the corridor, crying as he spoke.
At 78, he is older than India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars already 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 could 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’s 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”.
The opening of the land corridor from India into Pakistan comes just days ahead of the Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday on November 12
“I hope relations between Pakistan and India will improve after 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”.
Khan greeted pilgrims at the shrine, and in televised images could be seen speaking with Manmohan Singh.
– Sacred land –
At least 700 pilgrims are expected to pass through the corridor on Saturday, and more in the coming days. The deal allows for up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to cross.
The opening comes just days ahead of the Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday on November 12 — an anniversary of huge significance for the global Sikh community.
The deal between India and Pakistan allows for up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to cross a corridor to one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines
Sikhs from around the world have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for several days already, and early Saturday pilgrims could be seen washing their feet and queuing outside the shrine.
Pakistan has employed hundreds of labourers to spruce up the shrine, including building a border immigration checkpoint and a bridge, as well as expanding the site’s grounds.
The Sikh faith began in the 15th century in Punjab, a region including Kartarpur which is split today between India and Pakistan, when Guru Nanak began teaching a faith that preached equality.
There are an estimated 20,000 Sikhs left in Pakistan after millions fled to India following the bloody religious violence ignited by independence and partition, which sparked the largest mass migration in human history and led to the death of at least one million people.
“Life is short,” said Davinder Singh Wadah, an Indian pilgrim who spoke to AFP at the shrine Saturday after arriving in Pakistan last week on a visa, a process which can take months.
“Everyone has to go… so why not enjoy life and make this world a heaven, and I think this initiative is the beginning of it.”