Panja Sahib, Pakistan | Dawn | 9 July 2015 | Asia Samachar |
After waiting for 70 years, Karanveer Singh, a pilgrim from Hoshiarpur in India, is finally allowed to visit Pakistan. Mixed feelings of nostalgia and reverence overtake him as he pays homage to Maharaja Ranjit Singh on his 176th death anniversary. In the midst of rituals and preparations, he yearns to meet someone from Toba Tek Singh, his childhood town before partition.
Karanveer is among 400 pilgrims or yatrees from India who were given visas to travel to Pakistan to commemorate the occasion this year at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hassanabdal, a site of immense importance to members of the Sikh community.
Embedded on a rock in the gurdwara is the sacred hand print of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.
In the backdrop of the beautiful three-storied architecture of the gurdwara, 80-year-old Karanveer narrates the story of when he left Pakistan.
Only 12 years of age during the Partition, Karanveer’s memory of the time when Muslims and Hindus lived together in harmony persists. He says that although the conflict of Partition created a divide between different religious communities at the time, such clashes were not seen in Toba Tek Singh.
Karanveer says he harbours no ill feeling towards Pakistan and adds that in fact, for him, his life in Pakistan remains a core memory of his childhood that has stayed with him.
Karanveer’s story is not entirely unusual. Several other Sikh yatrees having similar tales to tell; separated from their roots, yet holding on to memories of the past, they co-exist peacefully with Muslims even in their present homes outside Pakistan.
Karanveer says back in India he celebrates Eid with his Muslim friends.
“One evening, my mother told us that we were going to Hoshiarpur in the morning with other Sikh families to replace the Muslim families that were leaving India,” Karanveer reminisces about the night before his journey to India.
Much to his dismay, Karanveer’s visa allowed him only 10 days to spend in Pakistan. Although that time could have been enough for him to observe Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s death anniversary as well as a visit his childhood home, he could not do so due to the conditions listed on his visa.
Karanveer is afraid that he may not be able to take a trip to his village and relive some of his childhood memories before departing from this world.
“It looks difficult because the visa restrictions from the Pakistani government only allow us to visit Lahore, Nankana Sahib and Hassanabdal during our stay,” he says.
Karanveer recalls that his house was near a gurdwara and that the displacement to India was difficult for him as a child.
“I was not interested in leaving my town for Hoshiarpur because we were very happy in our village. But elders from Sikh and Hindu families had decided to leave after Partition to avoid possible clashes. The decision to leave was made as there had been reports that members of the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities were going after each other,” Karanveer explains.
Like Karanveer, there are numerous devotees who are visiting Pakistan for the first time and long to connect to the birthplace of their parents and the home of their forefathers. One such pilgrim is 60-year-old Dilmir Singh Bajwa.
“My parents were born and raised in Jhelum. They shared many stories with me and my siblings from their hometown before they passed away,” Bajwa narrates.
“Before my father died, he longed to visit Jhelum but could not get a visa to travel to Pakistan. However, he asked my siblings and I to visit Pakistan at least once in our lives if we managed to get the chance.”
Having originally applied for a visa in April to partake in the Baisakhi festival which was refused, Bajwa was happy he was granted one later to commemorate Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death anniversary.
He states that thousands of Indians wishing to visit religious sites located in Pakistan are unable to do so because obtaining a visa is not easy.
“Although I am unable to visit my father’s village in Jhelum, I still feel blessed that I am getting to visit Pakistan to see the gurdwaras in Lahore, Nankana Sahib and Hassanabdal,” Bajwa says. With great sadness in his voice, he wonders whether it would ever be possible for the people of India and Pakistan to visit each other “without any restrictions”.
Some 5,000 Sikh pilgrims visit Pakistan each year for religious events.
Among these, the event that most Sikhs aim to partake in is the Baisakhi festival which brings together a religious festival, a harvest festival as well as the Sikhs’ New Year.
Other events include the birthday celebrations of Baba Guru Nanak and the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who united Punjab as a Sikh empire in the 19th century after the death of Aurangzeb.
The yatrees coming to Pakistan are looked after by the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB).
ETPB Chairman Siddiqul Farooq says the board also takes help from the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC) to make arrangements for the pilgrims’ boarding and lodging.
Farooq says the government has made arrangements to ensure the provision of maximum facilities to Sikh pilgrims.
Against all odds, Karanveer remains hopeful:
“Some day day India and Pakistan may adopt a policy of visa free travel for their citizens. Maybe then my grandson will get a chance to see my town – my Toba Tek Singh”.
[Adapted from the article Sikh pilgrims bring memories of a past life to HassanabdaL by Irfan Haider first published at Pakistan newspaper the Dawn on 6 July 2015]
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