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India-Pakistan 'peace corridor' opens Sikh temple to tourists

Tourists can cross borders without visas

KARTARPUR, Pakistan - After more than 70 years, Indian Sikhs will now be able to visit one of the religion's holiest sites by crossing the international border with Pakistan without a visa.

The Kartarpur Corridor is a 4.1 kilometer (2.5 mile) overland passage that links the Dera Baba Nana shrine in northwest India's Gurdaspur with the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan.

The Sikh temple -- known as a Gurdwara -- of Darbar Sahib is believed to be where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lived and died at the start of the 16th century.

November 9 is a historic moment for many Indian Sikhs as it will be the first time since partition -- when British India was divided into the two states of India and Pakistan -- that pilgrims have been able to travel between the two temples.

Around 5,000 devotees from India will be able to use the corridor each day.

"For the last 70 years, we have been praying for this," Manjinder Singh Sirsa, president of the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee, who will travel to the site on Saturday with a delegation of about 550 people, told CNN Travel.

"There cannot be a more joyous moment."

 

The birthplace of Sikhism

 

Known as "the land of five rivers," Punjab is where the Sikh religion was founded. The region is now divided between India and Pakistan, with most of the world's 27 million Sikhs living in India.

Kartarpur, about 118 kilometers (73 miles) from Lahore in Narowal district, lies on the banks of the Ravi River. It's where Guru Nanak lived for 18 years before he died there in 1539.

Guru Nanek's philosophy formed the basis of Sikhism, the world's fifth largest religion, which includes the key tenets of equality and service to others.

"Guru Nanak Dev ji spent most of his life in Kartarpur. His philosophy was developed and disseminated here and the last place he was (before he passed away), was in Kartarpur, so this is the most important place for Sikhs in the world," explains Sirsa.

Harleen Singh is the founder of "The Lost Heer Project," documenting the lost women of colonial Punjab. He says that Guru Nanak founded the town in 1515, plowing the fields and setting up an alms house, or langarkhana.

"The world's first gurdwara was set up there by Nanak as his congregations would gather there from all across Punjab," said Singh. He "chose his successor (Guru Angad) as the second guru of Sikhism there."

 

The legend and a miracle

 

The changing course of the Ravi River swept up the original village, and the shrine itself has gone through several rebuilds and renovations over the centuries.

A popular legend goes that after Nanak died, there was a dispute between the local Hindus and Muslims. Hindus, who claimed Nanak as their guru, wanted to cremate his body, while Muslims, who saw him as their peer, wanted to bury him.

But the legend follows that Guru Nanak's body was turned into flowers, which were then divided between the two communities.

 

Bloody history

 

The road link, dubbed the "corridor of peace" in local Indian and Pakistani media, is the latest attempt to improve cultural ties between the two countries.

They have harbored resentment for decades, following the bloody riots which followed the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan following the departure of the British colonial government in 1947.

The violence sparked a mass exodus with 12-15 million people fleeing their homes. Hindus and Sikhs left the newly-formed Pakistan and headed for India, while many Muslims made the reverse journey. An estimated 1 million people died along the way, many facing a violent end.

The new border not only divided the Punjab region but cut between the two sacred temples.

"After the partition, the abandoned and rotting building of the Kartarpur shrine became a symbol of loss and destruction of the sacred geography of the Sikhs," says Singh.

In the 1980s, the Darbar Sahib was claimed by smugglers due to its position near to the border.

While Sikhs from India have been able to travel to Pakistan to pay homage at the shrine, the trip was challenging to make due to a contentious relationship between India and Pakistan and security concerns.

Singh said a succession of "religious binocular towers" popped up along the Indian side of the border where Sikh pilgrims would climb and view the Darbar Sahib from a distance.

"We've been waiting for this for years. I know it is a very big deal for my grandparents to finally see this gurudwara in their lifetime," Manleen Kaur Sirsa, 21, who is traveling to the site from New Delhi on November 10, told CNN Travel.

 

What to expect

 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to inaugurate the corridor from the Indian side on November 8, while Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan will do the same on the Pakistan side the following day.

The opening coincides with Guru Nanak's 550th birthday, which is celebrated this year on November 12, and is expected to attract thousands of Sikh pilgrims from around the world.

And this won't simply be a chance to come and take pictures.

Sirsa explains that when the pilgrims arrive they will sing kirtan (Sikh devotional songs) and observe ardaas (prayer).

This will be followed by a langar -- a community meal where everyone takes turns cooking, eating and serving food as well as cleaning.

"The wheat that will be used in the langar will be from the same fields where Guru Nanak Dev ji also cultivated crops," adds Sirsa.

Before entering Sikh temples, visitors must wash their hands and feet or take a dip in a pool called a sarovar to cleanse.

The water, called 'amrit' (holy water or nectar), is believed to be sacred. Both men and women should cover their heads, arms and legs, and take off their shoes.

People of all religions are welcome at Sikh temples, in line with Sikh beliefs of inclusiveness and equality, and they're not known to be segregated by gender, apart from the sarovars.

 

How to get there

 

Before travel, Indian pilgrims have been told to register and submit relevant identification documents to the government which will then be sent to Pakistan for approval 10 days before the travel date. Confirmation will be sent to pilgrims four days before they go.

The corridor is open to cars or people can go by foot along the four-lane highway, though Indians using the corridor must go and come back on the same day. A newly-built passenger terminal building at the Pakistan border will process visitors.

"Pakistan wants to promote its soft image," Haroon Khalid, the author of "Walking with Nanak," a travelogue tracing Guru Nanak's life, tells CNN Travel. "The government is waking up up to heritage sites in the country and the potential of money coming in from the Sikh diaspora."

To reach Dera Baba Nana from the Indian capital of New Delhi, fly to Amritsar in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the Pakistan border. From there, travel by car to the city of Dera Baba Nanak, where the corridor begins, 1 kilometer away from the border.

The Golden Temple -- known as Sri Harmandir Sahib or "abode of God" -- is another important Sikh temple known for its golden dome, 50 kilometers (31 miles) away in Amritsar city.

Sophia Saifi reported from Islamabad, Manveena Suri reported from New Delhi and Helen Regan wrote from Hong Kong. Swati Gupta contributed reporting.


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