ISLAMABAD: Sikh pilgrims from India and other parts of the world have been visiting Pakistan to participate in the annual Baisakhi festival at Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal, a city located some 45 kilometers northwest of Islamabad.
Some 3,000 Sikhs have come from India through Wagah border on special trains, while 1,000 pilgrims arrived from other parts of the world — including Canada — to visit the famous shrine where their founder, Guru Nanak, is believed to have imprinted his handprint on a boulder there.
“We are very happy to come here and see a peaceful Pakistan,” Ajit Singh, one of the pilgrims, told Arab News.
Ajit Singh is in Hasan Abdal for the first time, to celebrate the Baisakhi festival here. He is planning to visit other sacred places as well as other parts of Pakistan during his visit.
“We pray for peace in our region,” he said. “We hope both Pakistan and India will forget their enmity and work together for betterment and prosperity of their people.”
But the arrival of Sikh pilgrims to Pakistan has triggered a controversy between the two South Asian countries.
India’s External Affairs Ministry claimed that the administration in Islamabad had “prevented” its High Commissioner from meeting the visiting Sikh pilgrims.
In response, Pakistan’s Foreign Office released a statement saying that India’s High Commissioner was invited to the main function of Baisakhi and Khalsa Janamdin at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib, but there was “strong resentment among segments of Sikh Yatrees, gathered there from different parts of the world, protesting the release in India of some film on Baba Guru Nanak Devji” which they objected to.
Given the “emotionally charged environment and the possibility of any untoward situation”, said the statement by the foreign office, the relevant Pakistani authorities contacted the Indian High Commission officials and suggested the cancelation of the diplomat’s visit.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony, along with other relevant government departments, has made facilities available to pilgrims at the site including accommodation, food, medical doctors and currency exchange.
Tanuj Singh, another pilgrim, has visited Pakistan several times with his family members to celebrate the Baisakhi festival.
“We come here every year and are thankful to the government and people of Pakistan for well maintaining all our religious sites and gurdwaras (Sikhs places of worship),” he told Arab News.
Tanuj Singh urged the governments of Pakistan and India to normalize their relations through dialogue and join hands together for peace in the region. “Every religion of the world teaches peace and harmony, so we should all act upon those teachings to make this world a peaceful place to live in,” he said.
During their ten-day stay in Pakistan, the Sikh pilgrims will also visit a number of other sacred places as well in other parts of the country, including Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur cities.
The arrival of Sikh pilgrims from India and other parts of the world marked a significant development in religious tourism in Pakistan, said Sajjad Qamar, spokesperson for the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony.
“The participation of Sikh pilgrims in the festival in large numbers shows their confidence and faith in renewed peace in Pakistan,” he said, adding that the government had been trying its best to provide maximum facilities to the pilgrims during their stay.
Qamar told Arab News that his ministry, along with provincial governments, had been reaching out to countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea among others to increase religious tourism in Pakistan.
“Pakistan is home to holy places of almost all religions, including Sikhism and Buddhism,” he said. “We hope to see a manifold increase in religious tourism in the coming months and years.”
Tight security measures were implemented in and around Gurdwara Panja Sahib where the Sikh pilgrims gathered to celebrate the festival.
“We are thankful to the people for the great hospitality and we will go back with the message of peace and love from Pakistan,” Param, a pilgrim from India, told Arab News.