Sikh youth at a ceremony during Basakhi
Sikh youth at a ceremony during Basakhi, at the shrine of Gurdwara Punja Sahib, in Hasan Abdal, close to Islamabad. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: Thousands of pilgrims gathered on Sunday to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi at the shrines of Panja Sahib and Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev, in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

The festival of Baisakhi — also known as Vaisakhi — is one of the most important Sikh festivals, marking the birth of the Sikh faith. It also signifies the start of the Punjabi New Year and beginning of the harvesting season.

For this festival, around 2,206 Sikh pilgrims travelled from India, despite tension between the two South Asian neighbours. Hundreds of Sikhs also joined the Pakistani Sikh community to commemorate the colourful festival in Pakistan, which houses some of the most sacred Sikh sites.

The festival included a parade, hymn singing, distribution of food and baths in the holy water. Pilgrims visited the shrines of Panja Sahib, Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib. As many as 2,500 policemen were deployed to provide security to the pilgrims during the festival.

Ravinder Singh Khalsa, group leader of Sikh pilgrims from India, thanked the Pakistan government for the arrangements and facilities. “We feel like we have come to our second home,” he said.

He also requested the government to increase the number of visas for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak so that more Sikh pilgrims can come to fulfil their heart’s desire.

The visitors from India hoped the cultural festival would strengthen ties between people of two countries. “People-to-people contact is essential for peace between the Pakistan and India,” said Sardar Gulldeap Singh from Amritsar, who is visiting Pakistan for the first time and felt “overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Pakistani government”.

On Sunday, Pakistani ministers joined the Sikh community on the concluding day of the festival and expressed the government’s commitment to facilitate the Sikh community.

Speaking on the occasion, Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan’s Adviser on Climate Change, said, “Prime Minister Imran Khan sent across the message of love for Sikh community by announcing opening of Kartarpur corridor”.

Sharing the details of upcoming projects, Amin Aslam said that Pakistan would establish Baba Guru Nanak Dev University and launch ‘Guru Nanak Sacred Forest’ at Nankana Sahib over 2500 acres of land “to pay tribute to Guru Nanak who was a nature lover.”

Aftab Jahangir, Parliamentary Secretary for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, said, “PM Imran Khan wants to do politics of love and harmony and his initiative of opening of Kartarpur corridor reflects the same.”

He added the government is committed to provide equal rights to minorities.

The Pakistan government has announced plans to open a border crossing directly from the place of worship, connecting Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Narowal district with Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur. The corridor to facilitate Sikh community in both countries is set to open in November 2019, commemorating the 550th birthday celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev.

“The opening of Kartarpur Corridor is an incredible initiative of Pakistan that could build a bridge between the two countries,” said Ramesh Singh Arora, chairman of Pakistan Sikh Council.