Centuries ago, it is said, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent his final days in this small village, farming the fields and formalising many of the practices of what would become a religion followed by more than 25 million people around the world.
When he died in 1539, the legend goes that he was so revered by both Hindus and Muslims that there was a dispute over how his remains should be treated: Should he be buried, in the Islamic tradition, or cremated, as Hindus wished?
Today, at the Sikh gurdwara, or place of worship, built over his final resting place, there is both a Muslim grave and a Hindu samadhi (shrine) marking his passing.
A few kilometres away, Sikhs gather at a podium to view one of the most sacred sites in their religion, lining up to pay tribute to Guru Nanak by viewing the gurdwara through a set of binoculars.
They are unable to access the site, just five kilometres away, because between the two gurdwaras lies an obstacle that has been almost insurmountable for most: The international border between India and Pakistan.
All that, however, is about to change.
India and Pakistan on Thursday signed an agreement for operationalising the Kartarpur Corridor that will allow Indian pilgrims visa-free access to the gurdwara built at the site in Pakistani Punjab where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, spent the last years of his life.
The signing ceremony was held at the “zero point” on the international border in the Dera Baba Nanak sector. It marked the end of what Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal described as “very difficult and tough negotiations”.
The agreement provides a formal framework for the corridor that will link Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur district to Durbar Sahib Gurdwara in Pakistan’s Kartarpur.
The agreement, signed by joint secretary SCL Das of India’s home ministry and Mohammad Faisal, also director general (South Asia) in Pakistan’s foreign ministry, marked a rare instance of cooperation between the two sides at a time of heightened tensions over New Delhi’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August.
“Indian pilgrims of all faiths and persons of Indian origin [PIOs]…can use the corridor. The travel will be visa-free,” Das told a news conference after the pact was signed.Faisal said: “It was very, very difficult and tough negotiations with India, because of the history we have. It is never easy; it is never simple.”
India signed the agreement despite serious misgivings over Pakistan’s decision to levy a service fee of $20 on every pilgrim. People familiar with developments said the pact was signed in view of the sentiments of the Sikh community, which has for long sought easier access to the gurdwara in Kartarpur, located about four kilometres from the border.
India has consistently urged Pakistan to not levy any fee, saying this was not in consonance with the religious and spiritual sentiments of the pilgrims. The two countries decided in November last year to open the corridor in time for 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak next month.
According to the agreement, Indian pilgrims of all faiths and PIOs can use the corridor without visas. Indian pilgrims will have to carry valid passports. The persons of Indian origin will require to carry their Overseas Citizenship of India cards along with their passports. The corridor will be open from dawn to dusk.
The pilgrims will have to return the same day. The corridor will be operational throughout the year, except on notified days informed in advance. The pilgrims will have the choice of visiting as individuals or in groups, and to travel on foot.
India will send lists of pilgrims to Pakistan 10 days ahead of the travel dates and confirmation will be sent four days before the visits. The Pakistan side will make provisions for langar (community kitchen) and prasad (devotional offerings).
Online registration of pilgrims began on Thursday on the website prakashpurb550.mha.gov.in. The pilgrims will be informed by SMS and email of the confirmation of the registration three to four days ahead of their date of travel and they will be issued an “electronic travel authorisation”, which they will have to carry along with their passports.
The pilgrims have been barred from carrying Wi-Fi and broadband devices, flags and banners challenging the territorial integrity of India or Pakistan, liquor and several other items.
Other items on the “negative list” notified by the home ministry include firearms and ammunition, explosives, and narcotics. All types of knives and blades except kirpans (one of the five distinguishing signs of the Sikhs), maps and literature with incorrect depiction of the external boundaries of India or Pakistan, literature and objects potentially damaging to communal harmony, goods that can be sold for gain or commercial use, satellite phones, gold and silver objects, pornographic materials and antiquities have also been barred.
The people cited above said despite the agreement, the Indian government will continue to urge Pakistan to reconsider its insistence on levying the service fee. India will also continue to pursue all-weather connectivity for the corridor, including the building of a bridge on the Pakistani side.