At least 700 pilgrims and more in the coming days are expected to pass through the border into Pakistan without a visa to pray at the shrine of the founder of their religion, Guru Nanak.

Sikh pilgrims stand in a queue to visit the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019.
Sikh pilgrims stand in a queue to visit the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan near the Indian border, on November 9, 2019. (AFP)

Hundreds of Indian Sikhs made a historic pilgrimage to Pakistan on Saturday, crossing through a white gate to reach one of their religion's holiest sites, after a landmark deal between the two countries separated by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Cheering Sikhs walked joyfully along the road from Dera Baba Nanak in India towards the new immigration hall that would allow them to pass through a secure land corridor into Pakistan, in a rare example of cooperation between the nuclear-armed countries divided by decades of enmity.

Some fathers ran, carrying their children on their shoulders.

Buses were waiting on the Pakistani side to carry them along the corridor to the shrine to Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak, which lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometres inside Pakistan where he is believed to have died.

"Generally people say that God is everywhere. But this walk feels like I'm going to directly seek blessings from Guru Nanak," Surjit Singh Bajwa told AFP news agency as he walked towards the corridor, crying as he spoke.

At 78, he is older than India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars already and nearly ignited a fourth earlier this year.

For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, the white-domed shrine is one of their holiest sites.

However, for Indian Sikhs, it has remained tantalisingly close –– so close they could stand at the border and gaze at its four cupolas –– but out-of-reach for decades.

When Pakistan got independence on August 14 at the end of British colonial rule in 1947 and India a day later, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border in Pakistan, while most of the region's Sikhs remained on the other side.

Since then, the perennial state of enmity between India and Pakistan has been a constant barrier to those wanting to visit the shrine, known in Sikhism as a gurdwara.

Pilgrims on both sides of the border echoed the hope that the corridor might herald a thawing in the relationship between India and Pakistan.

"When it comes to government-to-government relations, it is all hate and when it comes to people-to-people ties, it's all love," one of the Sikh pilgrims, who did not give his name, told Pakistani state TV as he crossed.

Among the first pilgrims to pass through the gate was former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who told Pakistani state media that it was a "big moment".

"I hope relations between Pakistan and India will improve after the opening of Kartarpur," he said.

The opening has even inspired a singular message of gratitude from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan for "respecting the sentiments of India."

Khan greeted pilgrims at the shrine, and in televised images could be seen speaking with Manmohan Singh.

Khan said a day would come "when our relations with India will improve".

"I am hopeful that this the beginning," he told the pilgrims at the shrine.

For years India had been asking Pakistan to grant Sikhs access to the shrine.

Many believe it has happened now because of the friendship between Khan, a World Cup-winning cricketer-turned-politician, and India's Navjot Singh Sidhu –– another cricketer-turned-politician.

"When Sidhu asked me to open the border, I kept it in my mind," Khan told devotees on Saturday.

He compared the situation to Muslims being able to see holy sites in Medina, but never visit.

Guru Nanak's 550th birthday

The opening comes just days ahead of the Guru Nanak's 550th birthday on November 12, which is marked with celebrations by millions of Sikhs around the world. The shrine will be one of the most important places for Sikhs on that day.

At least 700 pilgrims are expected to pass through the corridor on Saturday, and more in the coming days.

Sikhs from around the world, including some from India, who entered from the main border crossing at Wagah after obtaining visas, have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for several days already.

Vans of pilgrims could be seen travelling through Kartarpur on Friday.

The Indian flag could be seen flying across the border, just beyond fields dotted with eucalyptus and guava trees, though it was half obscured by the heavy smog that has blanketed large swathes of South Asia in recent days.

The presence of Pakistan's paramilitary Rangers leant a menacing edge to the otherwise peaceful scene. The rice-growing region, being so close to the border, is heavily secured, with multiple checkpoints.

'This land is sacred'

"This land is sacred for them," Habib Khan, the 63-year-old imam of a small mosque just outside the gurdwara, told AFP on Friday.

The deal allows for up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to cross.

Pakistan has employed hundreds of labourers to spruce up the shrine, including building a border immigration checkpoint and a bridge, as well as expanding the site's grounds.

The Sikh faith began in the 15th century in the city of Lahore, which is 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.

Source: AFP