Hundreds of Indian Sikhs have begun a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan, crossing to one of their religion’s holiest sites under a landmark deal between the two countries.
At least 700 pilgrims are expected to pass through the corridor on Saturday, with more to follow in the coming days.
They will head to the shrine to Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, which lies in Kartarpur, a small town just 4km (two miles) over the Pakistan side of the border where he is believed to have died.
In a rare example of cooperation between arch-rivals India and Pakistan, a secure visa-free land corridor has been created to allow up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to travel straight to the temple from the Indian side.
Among the first pilgrims to cross over into Pakistan’s Punjab province from the town of Dera Baba Nanak in India was former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who told Pakistani state media that it was a “big moment”.
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.
Pakistan and India break ground on visa-free Kartarpur corridor (02:23)
Since then, the perennial state of enmity between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars and countless border skirmishes since independence, has been a constant barrier to those wanting to visit the temple.
Saturday’s opening of the land corridor comes just days before the Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday on November 12 – an anniversary of huge significance for the global Sikh community.
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 before the celebrations for several days already.
“Our lifetime wish has been fulfilled, we never imagined this,” said Manees Kaur Wadha, an Indian pilgrim who arrived in Pakistan last week after managing to secure a visa, and was already at the shrine early on 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,” he told AFP news agency.
Pilgrims could be seen on both sides of the border on Saturday morning 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.
In a rare message of gratitude between the nuclear-armed neighbours, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked Khan earlier on Saturday for his “cooperation”.
“I would like to thank the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, for respecting the sentiments of India. I thank him for his cooperation,” Modi said in televised comments.
Despite the news on the border crossing opening, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said relations had not been as strained as they are now since the two sides battled on their border for months in the northern area of Kargil in 1999.
“There is no back-channel. We’ve had wars, things have been worse than this, but things are bad,” Qureshi told Reuters news agency in an interview in the Pakistani city of Lahore late on Friday. “For any sane mind, it is concerning.”
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.