For decades, India’s Sikhs have longed to reach one of their holiest sites, a soaring white temple, built on a river bank. From about 2 miles away, they constructed viewing platforms simply to gaze at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur.
It is the site where Sikhs believe their faith’s founder, Guru Nanak, passed away in the 16th century. But since Pakistan was partitioned from India in 1947, following the end of British rule of South Asia, the temple has been mostly out of reach. It lies in Pakistan, beyond a largely shuttered and troubled border. Most Sikhs live in India — more than 20 million people, of the country’s 1.4 billion population.
But in a goodwill gesture on Wednesday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan broke ground on a corridor allowing Indian Sikhs visa-free access to the gurdwara. It will be part of a broader complex known as the Kartarpur Crossing.
“For 70 years, we have watched the site from 4 kilometers away,” said Harsimrat Kaur Badal, an Indian government minister who attended the ceremony. Now, “a new history is being written.”
It followed India’s inauguration of its section of the corridor on Monday, led by Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu. “We are fulfilling the wish of thousands of Sikh devotees,” Naidu said, according to local media.
Inder Singh, 66, was one of the hundreds who traveled to Pakistan by train from the Indian city of Hyderabad to watch Khan’s ceremony. “We had never imagined this would happen,” Singh said. “I think it’s a miracle with the grace of Baba Guru Nanak.”
A few thousand Indian pilgrims do visit the shrine every year, but they said securing permission was difficult.
Khan used the rare moment of cross-border cooperation to call for peace with India. The countries are nuclear-armed rivals that have waged three wars in their seven decades since independence. “We want a civilized relationship,” he said. “There is no problem that can’t be solved if you want to solve it.”
That frothy optimism was shared by pilgrims who appeared, at a distance, like a sea of colorful turbans, worn by devout Sikh men.
“Relations will definitely improve with the grace of Guru Nanak,” said the pilgrim, Singh. “And look, the two cricketers have done it,” he added, referring to the provincial Indian Cabinet member Navjot Singh Sidhu — a former cricket player and old friend of Khan, an international star athlete of the sport who led Pakistan’s team to Cricket World Cup victory in 1992.
Plans for the crossing had been dormant since 1988, but momentum was revived after Sidhu, a Sikh, requested it be opened when he attended Khan’s inauguration in August. It took several more months for India to approve.
The pilgrim, Inder Singh, said despite tensions, ordinary Indians and Pakistanis want peace. “When I descend off the train people embrace me, they invite me for tea and other things.”
Then he rushed toward the gurdwara, cordoned off with walls topped with barbed wire. Worshippers feasted outside the soaring structure, topped with several domes. Later, they thronged into the building, praying and chanting.
But analysts said it was unlikely that the corridor would warm relations. India accuses Pakistan of harboring militants who have conducted deadly cross-border attacks. The right-wing Hindu nationalist ruling party has traditionally hostile relations with Pakistan.
Hinting at that chilly state of affairs, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj declined an invitation to attend the Pakistani ceremony. In later comments, she suggested Pakistan had long delayed building the corridor. She also turned down an offer to represent India at a regional summit that was to be held in Pakistan.
Many in India accuse Pakistan of supporting a Sikh separatist movement to build a homeland called Khalistan. Spotlighting those concerns, about a dozen Pakistani Sikh schoolchildren sporting matching lavender turbans briefly chanted “Long live Khalistan!” outside the gurdwara. They were met with silence.
A former head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Javed Ashraf Qazi, said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to build its part of the corridor with an eye on upcoming elections in May. “By denying the Kartarpur crossing, he would have annoyed the Sikh community,” he said.
For Pakistan, Qazi said the gesture was meant to improve the country’s beleaguered image abroad. “It will certainly earn a lot of goodwill for Pakistan and Imran Khan,” he said.
A Pakistani newspaper editorial said the move by India and Pakistan to open the crossing, however modest, was encouraging. Even if the Indian foreign minister did not attend, two ministers were dispatched, suggesting India “does not want to ignore the growing bloc that favours a thaw,” Pakistan Today wrote.
The inauguration comes a year before Sikhs will commemorate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth, an event that Pakistan hopes will bring tens of thousands of religious pilgrims and tourists.
For now, the corridor’s expected opening was celebrated by many Sikhs as a long-awaited balm to the trauma of being separated from their holy sites since partition.
“This is just the beginning,” Inder Singh said. “I hope that the days that we had 70 years ago come back.”