Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, stands on the edge of the Ravi river in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Surrounded by agricultural fields, it is a modest structure, a single building that houses the smadh of the first Sikh guru, with a few makeshift rooms where the caretakers live. However, the gurdwara is slowly expanding. Plans for a langar hall (community kitchen) were being laid out when I last visited the shrine a few years ago. With Sikh religious tourism in Pakistan seeing rapid growth in the past few years, the state has renovated several of these neglected historical Sikh shrines in collaboration with the Sikh community here.
I stood at the edge of the Ravi staring deep into the fields that lay on its eastern bank. With the arrival of the monsoon, the river was swelling. People here believe that every monsoon, the river breaks its banks and reaches the boundary wall of the shrine to offer obeisance to Guru Nanak. A few days prior to my visit, a large snake was caught in the courtyard of the shrine. The caretakers said it, too, was there to pay homage to the guru.
Guru Nanak spent 17 years in this spot, working on his fields and taking a dip in the waters of this ancient river every day. A gurdwara was constructed here during his lifetime where every evening, kirtan (the singing of devotional songs) was performed and then langar served. It is here that Guru Nanak appointed Bhai Lehna as his spiritual successor, calling him Guru Angad Dev, thus laying the foundation of the institutionalisation of Sikhism.
Beyond the river, somewhere deep in the fields, camouflaged by a thick cover of trees, is the most dangerous border in the world. An electric fence topped by high-powered search lights, manned by thousands of soldiers, marks this transition from Pakistan to India. While Pakistani and Indian soldiers exchange fire regularly at the Line of Control, which divides the disputed territory of Kashmir, and the Working Boundary dividing Punjab from Jammu, the International Border remains peaceful. However, tension looms behind this semblance of peace. Contingents of armies on both sides remain ever vigilant, aware of how fragile this peace is.
Defying this heightened sense of antagonism, hundreds of devotees gather every day at the border on the Indian side to catch a glimpse of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, armed with powerful binoculars. Pakistan, for them, is not an enemy country but the home of Guru Nanak. There are about 200 historical gurdwaras scattered across the country that mark important historical events in the lives of the Sikh gurus. These include the birthplaces of Guru Nanak and Guru Ram Das, as well as the smadh of Guru Arjan and that of Guru Nanak.
Every year, thousands of Sikh pilgrims from India and other parts of the world travel to Pakistan, the land of the gurus, to visit these historical sites. These are remarkable pilgrimages that put aside the historical baggage between India and Pakistan and allow many Sikhs to reconnect with a land that is no longer theirs but continues to occupy an important place in their imagination. Hatred fuelled by decades of state propaganda is put aside as various communities intermingle, each humanising the other.
Perhaps these pilgrimages are more important for Pakistan than for the Indian Sikh pilgrims. It allows the country to reclaim some of the history it had to abandon after Partition. It reminds the country that it is home to diverse religious traditions, possibly paving the way for a multi-religious society some time in the future. Muslim Pakistani traders who have never interacted with a Sikh or a Hindu find themselves haggling with these pilgrims all of a sudden, realising they are not the demons they had imagined them to be all these years.
The media reports these events, raising awareness about these historical characters that have otherwise been left out of the national discourse. The increasing inflow of religious tourists is also a blessing for the abandoned Sikh shrines. In the past decade or so, numerous gurdwaras have been renovated and handed over to the Sikh community. This gurdwara diplomacy has the potential to bring the people of the two countries together and also ensure the religious freedom of minorities in Pakistan.
Held hostage by politics
It is perhaps because of the significant role these pilgrimages play that they often fall prey to the age-old narrative of hostility between India and Pakistan. When tensions between the two countries rise, there is a significant fall in the number of Sikh pilgrims traveling to Pakistan. According to media reports, Indian authorities barred Sikh pilgrims from visiting Pakistan twice in the last month. In the first week of June, hundreds of devotees were reportedly stopped from attending a gathering at Lahore Dera Sahib to commemorate the assassination of Guru Arjan. Later in the month, another group of Sikhs was stopped from traveling to Pakistan to mark the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh Empire, the reports said.
On the other side of the border too, there are media reports accusing Pakistan of foul play. Soon after the Indian Army’s “surgical strike” on militant launchpads on the Pakistani side in September, which Islamabad continues to deny, the Indian state alleged that Pakistani authorities had refused to trim the elephant grass at the border close to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, stopping hundreds of devotees from making their darshan.
Every other year, talk about a peace corridor to be constructed at Kartarpur Sahib surfaces. For several years now, the Sikh community has been lobbying for this corridor that would allow Indian pilgrims to travel to the shrine without a visa – an idea that has been warmly received by officials in both governments on several occasions. However, the proposal sinks each time the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan hits a new low. It is in such antagonistic times that these gurdwaras and pilgrimages can play an important role in lowering tensions. Which makes it all the more petty that Pakistan’s Sikh heritage is still held hostage by India-Pakistan politics.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva, and A White Trail.