A Gurdwara in Pakistan

Growing up in India, I always wondered what it would be like to visit Pakistan. I devoured books by Pakistani writers, poetry, short stories on the Partition, and films that touched on the India-Pakistan dynamic.

So, I was elated when I came across a video on YouTube that showed that Indians could visit Pakistan without a visa!

In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Kartarpur corridor – a visa-free border crossing that allows people on the Indian side to visit Gurudwara Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur Sahib) in Kartarpur, Pakistan. Indian passport holders and OCI card holders can visit Kartarpur Sahib for a religious pilgrimage to the most holy site in Sikhism after the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

A pool of water
Sarovar Sahib, Kartarpur (Image credit: Shahzaib Damn Cruze – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia)

Guru Nanak lived in Kartarpur

Kartarpur Sahib is where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, lived for 18 years until his death. It has two resting places for Guru Nanak– one right outside the Gurudwara and one inside. Locals believe that after his death Guru Nanak’s body turned into flowers. Muslims buried some flowers according to their rites and Hindus cremated the flower whose ashes are kept inside the gurudwara.

It took nearly 2 decades for talks about Kartarpur Sahib to come to fruition in 2018. Navjot Singh Sidhu, then the tourism minister for Punjab attended Imran Khan’s inauguration and set the ball rolling after meeting Khan and former Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The inner sanctum of a Sikh gurdwara in Kartarpur Sahib
Inside the inner sanctum at Kartarpur Sahib (Image credit: Guglani – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia)

Getting to Kartarpur

I was nervous when applying for a permit to visit Kartarpur. Would the process be complicated? The process was surprisingly simple. I filled out an online application from India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. A local police station verified my application and identity. Next, I had to wait for approval from Pakistan which took some time. That arrived  3 days before my departure.

A week before leaving for Kartarpur, made a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Even if Kartapur Sahib did not work out I’d have an opportunity to spend more time in Amritsar. The approval came right after I visited the Golden Temple. I think Waheguru listened to my prayers!

To reach Kartarpur, I took a cab to Dera Baba Nanak, a city by the Pakistan border. Indians and OCI card holders can complete immigration procedures at a facility built by the Indian government, before crossing into Pakistan. Currency restrictions meant I could only take up to Rs. 11,000 ($134) in cash. You cannot take Pakistani currency back to India.

I had to produce a negative COVID test. After immigration, a golf cart took me to the border where I officially crossed into Pakistan and boarded a bus to the Gurudwara.

A warm welcome

Once I saw the board, ‘Welcome to Pakistan’, the feeling sank in. I was officially in Pakistan. Gurudwara staff warmly welcomed us pilgrims with a refreshing drink because it was a hot summer’s day.

However, the heat didn’t deter anyone from enjoying the gurudwara grounds. Pakistan has invested millions of dollars in this massive complex that is truly a marker of peace between the two countries.

People from India were given yellow badges and Pakistanis wore blue ones. As I entered the complex, a Pakistani visitor broke the ice by asking, “Aap India se ho?” (Are you from India)?

I immediately felt at ease. It didn’t seem like I was outside my own country.

Kartarpur has a market and friendly shop owners with whom I struck up a conversation. It was great to learn more about my neighboring country.

It was great to see Pakistan encouraging tourism at a Sikh religious site. The staff was deeply respectful of the gurudwara and extremely welcoming to Indians. They encouraged us to take photos of the gurudwara and video call our friends and family to show them the ardaas.

The langar at the Gurudwara was one of the best I’ve ever. The icing on the cake was ‘doodh soda’ – a mix of milk with 7Up (a non-caffeinated soft drink)!

Why Kartarpur matters

India-Pakistan relations have been frazzled in the past decade, particularly after the 2019 Pulwama attack. Kartarpur is truly a bridge that connects India with its neighbor and is a step towards strengthening relations.

The most interaction I have had with Pakistanis has been outside India, so it was heartening to meet Pakistanis on their home turf. Going to Pakistan made me realize that we have a shared history and culture. People are wonderful on both sides of the border.

It’s easy to get carried away by news, rumors, and gossip and be afraid of the unknown. Having been to Kartarpur has made me believe in a future where India and Pakistan share a strong bond.

Ankita Mukhopadhyay is a media product manager and freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She recently graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Ankita’s articles...