ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of Indian Sikhs prepared to make a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan on Saturday, crossing to one of their religion’s holiest sites under a landmark deal between the two countries separated by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.
The shrine to Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometres (two miles) over the Pakistan side of the border where he is believed to have died.
In a rare example of cooperation between the arch-rivals, a secure visa-free land corridor has been created to allow pilgrims to travel straight to the temple from the Indian side.
For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, the white-domed building is one of their holiest places, which for Indian Sikhs has remained tantalisingly close but out-of-reach for decades.
At the time of independence from Britain in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border, while most of the region’s Sikhs remained on the other side.
The proximity of the shrine, known in Sikhism as a gurdwara, is such that Indian Sikhs can stand at the border and gaze across the divide at the building’s four cupolas.
Saturday’s opening of the land corridor comes just days ahead of the Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday on November 12 — an anniversary of huge significance for the global Sikh community.
“Our lifetime wish has been fulfilled, we never imagined this,” said Manees Kaur Wadha, a pilgrim who came to Pakistan last week after managing to secure a visa, and was already at the shrine early Saturday.
“Since childhood, our elders had told us so many stories of Pakistan. They left (migrated) from here. But we never imagined we would ever be able to see it and have these feelings.”
At least 700 pilgrims are expected to pass through the corridor on Saturday, and more in the coming days.
– ‘This land is sacred’ –
Sikhs from around the world — including some from India, who entered through the main border crossing at Wagah after obtaining visas — have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for several days already.