Guru Nanak and the promise of an inclusive Pakistan


The Gurdwara Janam Asthan is located on the spot that was once the house of the family of Guru Nanak. He is believed to have been born here. Every year in November thousands of pilgrims visit the gurdwara. PHOTO/Faisal Saeed/Al Jazeera

Pakistan reimagines its relationship with its Sikh heritage by opening a key corridor and restoring sites of worship.

For a few days every November, the Pakistani city of Nankana Sahib is transformed as thousands of Sikhs and other devotees of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, descend upon it to celebrate Guru Nanak Gurpurab, the anniversary of his birth.

They come from within Pakistan, from the Middle East, Europe, the United States and Canada, but the majority arrive from neighbouring India. This year – on his 550th birthday – the numbers are likely to be even greater. On Saturday, as part of the celebration, Pakistan opened a corridor that will allow Indian pilgrims to travel without visas between the Indian town of Dera Baba Nanak and the Sri Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara, Guru Nanak’s final resting place, about 6km (4 miles) away in Pakistan.

Men in colourful turbans and dangling kirpan (a knife or sword) and women in saris – once a regular sight in the cities and towns of what came to be known as West Punjab – will become so again. The sound of Sanskritised Punjabi and the drone of kirtan (devotional songs) from the loudspeakers of the city’s gurdwaras will mingle with the azan, the Muslim call to prayer.

Nankana Sahib

Located about 75km from Lahore, Nankana Sahib was once known as Rai Bhoi Di Talwandi, but was renamed in honour of Guru Nanak, who was born there in the 15th century.

Gurdwara Janam Asthan, a vast and imposing complex with large manned gates located at one end of the main artery that runs through the city, marks the spot where Guru Nanak was born.

On the city’s eastern side is Gurdwara Balila, where he played as a child.

While Gurdwara Janam Asthan remains the main focus for pilgrims, over the past few years, several smaller gurdwaras that had been in ruins for decades have been renovated.

These gurdwaras tell a story of a state reimagining its relationship with its Sikh heritage and actively trying to preserve it.

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