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.
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 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 said 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 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 hoped the corridor might herald a thaw in South Asian tensions.
‘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 was former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, who told Pakistani state media that it was a ‘big moment’.
The opening 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’.
For his part, Khan said a day would come ‘when our relations with India will improve’.
‘I am hopeful that this the beginning,’ he told the pilgrims at the shrine.
For years India had been asking Pakistan to grant Sikhs access to the shrine.
Many believe it has happened now because of the friendship between Khan, a World Cup winning cricketer-turned politician, and India’s Navjot Singh Sidhu — another cricketer-turned-politician.
‘When Sidhu asked me to open the border, I kept it in my mind,’ Khan told devotees Saturday.
He compared the situation to Muslims being able to see holy sites in Medina, but never visit.
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