Thousands of Sikhs from across the globe have converged in a small city of Pakistan’s northeastern Punjab province, to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion.
What makes special this year, is that the festival also marks the opening of Kartarpur border crossing between India and Pakistan.
Notwithstanding a chill in bilateral ties over Kashmir, Pakistan and India after tough negotiations signed a landmark agreement last week, to operationalize the corridor to allow Indian pilgrims to visit the holy Sikh shrine in Pakistan.
The three-day event will be held from Nov. 10-12 in Nankana Sahib district — the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak- located around 80 Kilometer (49 miles) from provincial capital Lahore.
It will coincide with a separate event in the border town of Kartarpur, which also houses a historic Gurdwara – Sikh house of worship, where Guru Nanak settled and died in 1539. The two countries decided that 5,000 pilgrims from India, can visit this shrine daily without showing travel permits.
“Over 7000 Sikhs from different parts of the world have already gathered in Nankana Sahib, while thousands more are expected to join us, in the next couple of days”, Sardar Gopal Singh, a Pakistani Sikh community leader told Anadolu Agency, over the telephone from Nankana Sahib.
“We are very excited not only because it is our prime occasion, but also because of the opening of the Kartarpur border crossing”, Singh said, adding that the festival would give Pakistani Sikhs an opportunity, to see their near and dear ones, from across the world.
Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara situated in Narowal district– some 115 km (71 mi) from the provincial capital Lahore — is one of the most revered places for the Sikh community as Baba Guru Nanak spent last 18 years of his life there.
The distance between Kartarpur and the town of Gurdaspur in India is merely 3 km (2 mi). But the closure of this crossing meant that Sikh pilgrims from India had to travel, hundreds of kilometers to cross the border at Wagah, near Amritsar and then travel to Lahore, to reach Kartarpur.
The number of Sikhs in Pakistan is estimated between 30,000-40,000, out of some 200 million population of this South Asian Muslim country.
Sikh special association with Pakistan
Pakistan is home to some of the most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhs. They include the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469, Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara and Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal town, where the handprint of Guru Nanak is believed to be imprinted on a boulder.
These sites are visited by thousands of Sikhs from neighboring India, Europe and Canada every year.
“Sikhs across the globe have a very special association with Pakistan, as the birthplace [Nankana Sahib] and the place of death [Kartarpur Sahib] of the founder of their religion Baba Guru Nanak are here”, said Iqbal Qaiser, a Lahore-based historian and writer of Punjabi language.
Punjabi is the common language of the province of Punjab, partitioned between Pakistan and India.
Qaiser — author of Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan, one of detailed books on holy Sikh sites in Pakistan — described the opening of Kartarpur border as one of the most important developments in the recent India-Pakistan history.
“It was not India that had been divided in 1947. It was actually the Punjab that had been divided into two parts”, he said, referring to the creation of India and Pakistan, as two independent states, following the end of British colonial era.
“Opening of Kartarpur crossing means the Punjabis [from both sides of the border] are coming closer”, he maintained.
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