KARTARPUR, Pakistan — Rising above a placid stretch of rice paddies and wheat fields in southern Punjab province is a graceful white-domed temple. To followers of the Sikh religion, 21 million of whom live in next-door India, it is a sacred site where Guru Nanak Devji, a founder of Sikhism, spent the last decade of his life and passed away, nearly 550 years ago.
For the past 70 years, though, the site has remained either closed or mostly empty — captive to the historic enmity stemming from Partition, the process that violently sundered India in 1947 and created Pakistan as a Muslim homeland.
The temple sits just three miles from the border with India, but the psychological distance is much greater. This border is one of the tensest, most militarized boundaries in the world, with thousands of troops guarding both sides of razor-wire fences. The countries have fought two wars, and shootings often erupt across the “line of control” that divides the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
Indian Sikh pilgrims who want to visit the temple on special occasions, such as anniversaries of Guru Nanak’s death, must obtain Pakistani visas, walk across the only official border opening, 75 miles away, and travel two hours by bus to reach the isolated temple. Others find it easier to visit a designated spot on their side of the border, where they can view the temple through binoculars.
But now, the Pakistani government has announced plans to open a border crossing directly across from the temple and build a connecting road, which it plans to open in November 2019. It is a modest but high-profile gesture that officials say they hope will help improve relations with Pakistan’s Hindu-led, nuclear-armed adversary next door.
The idea sprang from a conversation between Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and an Indian Sikh politician and former cricket star, Navjot Singh Sidhu, at the inauguration of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in August. On Nov. 28, both officials joined Khan at a groundbreaking ceremony outside the temple, along with foreign ambassadors and Indian journalists.
Making an emotional plea for rapprochement, Khan told the crowd that Pakistan’s government, army and political parties “are all on one page. We want to move forward.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a strong Hindu nationalist, reciprocated in kind. “Did anyone ever think that the Berlin Wall would fall?” Modi said in a statement. “Maybe with the blessings of Guru Nanak Devji, this corridor . . . will act as a bridge between the peoples of the two countries.”
But years of deep-seated animosity soon intruded on the hopeful moment. India’s foreign minister declined to attend the ceremony, citing “prior commitments” and sent two lower-ranking officials who are Sikhs. The Hindu and Sikh religions have common roots in India, but Sikhs believe in a single deity, while Hindus worship a variety of gods.
Pakistan’s foreign minister accused India of playing politics with the issue. Modi faulted the Indian opposition Congress party for “letting Kartarpur go” in 1947 and cutting off the temple from India. Khan complained that the Indian news media had disparaged his gesture as a stunt.
Despite the high-level wrangling, many Pakistanis expressed strong support for the border opening, saying they hoped it could ease the long-standing tensions that have kept two neighboring armies on alert and the specter of nuclear war hanging over the region.
Members of Pakistan’s small Sikh community, which numbered several million before Partition but has dwindled to about 30,000, were especially excited. Many said they visit the temple at least once a year, explaining that it holds a strong place in their emotions and beliefs.
“It takes me to another world. I feel a calmness there like nowhere else,” said Sarbir Singh, 41, who owns a bridal shop at a crowded bazaar in Rawalpindi city. “All of us want both countries to be at peace and their people to mingle,” he said. “This is a first step, and, God willing, it will lead to more.”
The lane to the temple in Kartarpur, off a bumpy farm road, is marked with a sign in English, Urdu and Hindi Sanskrit. The grounds are surrounded by sugar cane fields, and the border is just over the horizon, with bulldozers at work to build the new road.
On Wednesday, a small stream of visitors arrived to tour the site, a walled compound that was built in 1921. Inside are neatly tended gardens, pristine tiled pavilions, and a carved white building containing vividly decorated chambers for praying and reading from Sikhism’s holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
Most of the visitors were Pakistani Muslims, some of whom said they had come partly out of curiosity and partly to pay their respects. Saima Afzal, 34, drove from Lahore in a minivan with her children and other relatives.
“We have heard since childhood about this guru, that he was a great thinker who cared about humanity,” Afzal said. “We are Muslims, but we respect him. We want to see more trade with India, and more understanding. When people meet, they start to know each other.”
The temple is managed by a Pakistani Sikh, Govind Singh. A fountain of information on Sikh history, he has lived in the temple compound since 2000, when the site was reopened after being closed since 1947.
Singh said that all previous Pakistani governments had respected the Sikh religion and that Pakistanis had never shown to Sikhs the ill-will that historically marred their relations with Hindus. But even since the temple reopened, he said, only about 15,000 Sikhs a year have managed to come from abroad, including about 4,000 from India, because reaching the site was so difficult.
Now, Singh said, “Sikhs all over the world are full of happiness. We pray that the bridge to Kartarpur will bring them all here.”