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In Pakistan, an Inclusive Sikh Festival Highlights History Before Division

Each year, thousands visit the city of Nankana Sahib to commemorate Sikhism’s founder.

Pakistani and Indian Sikh devotees gather around a priest reading from the Sikh holy book to celebrate the birthday of Sri Guru Nanak Dev, in Nankana Sahib. Arif Ali/ AFP/ Getty Images

“Everyone is equal in Guru Nanak’s eyes,” says Hardial Singh, an Indian Sikh who crossed the border in November to visit Sikhism’s holy sites in Pakistan. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, “came with a humanitarian mission and everyone is here to serve other pilgrims. The mission of unity is supreme and there is hate for no one.”

In front of the Gurdwara Janam Asthan, a Sikh temple known as the birthplace of Sikhism’s founder, thousands of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus gathered in November 2017 to celebrate the 549th birthday of Guru Nanak. The Sikh yatris (pilgrims) faced the center of a sacred pond of water known as the sarovar. Here, more than 500 years ago, a new monotheistic religion took root in South Asia, repudiating the traditional caste system of Hinduism and emphasizing a direct connection to the Divine without priestly intermediaries.

A 19th-century watercolor of Guru Nanak listening to music. A 19th-century watercolor of Guru Nanak listening to music. Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0

For Singh, whose mother converted to Sikhism from Islam after the violent 1947 Partition that redrew India and Pakistan into two separate states, the legacy of Partition is still alive. “We were children, so we had no understanding. Hate was deeply rooted in the minds of people who were deeply loving of each other before,” he says. During the Partition, Singh’s then-Muslim mother pledged that if she survived Partition, she would donate $100 to Sikh institutions. It was a story that changed Singh’s entire life—soon, he too was bargaining with God, promising to embrace Guru Nanak if he received a pay raise. When his salary more than doubled, he began joining gurdwaras for their communal prayers and meals.