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.
When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India at 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.
Since then the perennial state of enmity between India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars and countless border skirmishes since independence, has been a constant barrier to those wanting to visit the temple.
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, an Indian 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.
Pilgrims could be seen on both sides of the border early Saturday readying for the corridor’s inauguration, with those already at the shrine washing their feet as workers laid out dozens of coloured cushions, bright against the white of building.
Earlier, the Indian flag could be seen flying across the border, just beyond fields dotted with eucalyptus and guava trees — though it was half-obscured by the heavy smog that has blanketed large parts of South Asia in recent days.
The presence of Pakistan’s paramilitary Rangers leant a menacing edge to the otherwise peaceful scene. The rice-growing region, being so close to the border, is heavily secured with multiple checkpoints.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will see off the first group of pilgrims later Saturday, and they will be welcomed by his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan at the shrine.
The deal allows for up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to cross.
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.
Some residents in Kartarpur complained to AFP that the government had cheated them out of land to expand the complex.
Habib Khan, the 63-year-old imam of a small mosque just outside the gurdwara, said Friday he understood their concerns, but that Sikhs had “every right” to visit.
“This land is sacred for them,” he said.
The Sikh faith began in the 15th century in the city of Lahore, now part of 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.