By Maha Mussadaq for The Express Tribune
Tears gushed down Supreet Kaur’s face as she stared at the shrine of Punja Sahib and prayed for less stringent border controls so she can visit Hassan Abdal every year for Baisakhi. The three-day festival ended on Friday.
Wiping her tears with her veil Kaur said that her ‘mannat’ — a prayer that she hopes will be answered by visiting the shrine this year — is that people around the world live as one and all borders become porous. “I want the world to live in harmony and peace. So far all my prayers have come true and I am sure this one will as well”
Supreet was not the only one to wish for easier access to the shrine. Thousands of pilgrims who came for Baisakhi prayed for a change in visa policy for Sikhs so that they are able to visit the shrine any time of the year. Some pilgrims complained about acquiring a letter of invitation from either family or friends in Pakistan for their visa.
Rajpal Singh said that it was unfortunate that many Sikhs could not visit Pakistan because of the restrictions. “Both governments should devise a verification system so that Sikhs can cross the border for religious rituals. Even a permit would be fine,” Rajpal added. “I want these restrictions to come to an end so we can visit other shrines in Pakistan, such as Baba Buleh Shah’s,” Supreet said.
Baisakhi is an annual event which holds a very special place in the lives of Sikhs. The day marks the beginning of the new solar year. It also marks the formation of Khalsa (the pure one). Sikhs believe that it was on this day in 1699 when the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh declared all human beings as equal.
On Baisakhi, traditions of Gurus were compiled by Sikhs. Guru Granth Sahib was established as their eternal guide and the holy book. Punja Sahib is one of the three holiest shrines for Sikhs because of a large rock bearing an imprint of Guru Nanak’s hand or punja, founder of the Sikh religion. Sikhs swim across the stream, making a wish as they touch the imprint.
Due to security fears, Sikhs could not leave Punja Sahib without permission. Some 3,000 Rangers had been deployed by the Punjab government in and around the premises.
Approximately 8,000 Sikhs came to Punja Sahib this year for the annual Baisakhi festival. Singh said that he was extremely satisfied with the arrangements and was happy to see the hospitality of the Pakistani government. However, Major Singh, 67, said both governments should improve facilities offered to pilgrims, including operational bathrooms and lights in trains.
Thousands of pilgrims were accommodated inside the gurdawara like every year. A huge portion of Punja Sahib is still under construction but most pilgrims were satisfied with the rooms provided.
Approximately, 2,300 Sikhs travelling from India have been accommodated in more than 400 rooms in Punja Sahib. Paramjeet Singh laughingly said just sleeping under a shade at Punja Sahib is more relaxing than any other place in the world. “It’s not about my physical needs; I am spiritually satisfied.”
A large number of men and women had set up their stalls at the back of the gurdwara. Hindu vendor, Inder Kaur had come from Sindh to sell jewellery made in Mumbai. He said merchants make approximately Rs25,000 in three days. “I love shopping here because they sell items such as clothes or even bindia that we do not get in Pakistan,” said Kalvinder Kaur, who was buying bangles from Inder.