Pakistan – a country of rich heritage with threads from many faiths woven through its cultural fabric. It has been home to a significant Sikh population, accompanied by a fascinating history. Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, has a strong presence in Pakistan, particularly in the province of Punjab. In fact, before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the city of Lahore was a major center of Sikh culture and learning.
However, partition changed everything. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes and migrate to either India or Pakistan, and the once-thriving Sikh community in Lahore was decimated. There is no denying the trials and tribulations the Sikh community has faced in Pakistan through the turbulent history of the War of Independence, as they have left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s cultural landscape. Despite these challenges, the Sikh community in Pakistan has persevered. They have worked hard to rebuild their lives and maintain their cultural and religious identity, even in the face of adversity. In fact, the bond between Punjabis and their devotion to the soil is so strong, that it surpasses even religious biases and rifts. Today, it has allowed India and Pakistan to jump leaps and bounds in rebuilding trust between the two nations and paved the way for the establishment of the Kartarpur Corridor, allowing Sikh devotees to visit religiously significant landmarks in the Punjab region. The history of Sikhism in Pakistan is a story of resilience, determination, and faith in the face of adversity – a story that is both fascinating and inspiring.
Guru Nanak was born in the Punjab region of India in 1469, and from a young age, he was drawn to spiritual pursuits. As he grew older, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the religious practices and social norms of his time and began to search for a deeper understanding of God and the universe. In his early 30’s, he had a profound spiritual experience that changed the course of his life and inspired him to start a new religious movement, which we now know as Sikhism. It is said that he disappeared into a river and re-emerged three days later, proclaiming “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” This experience marked the beginning of his mission to promote a new religious path that would unite people of all faiths and backgrounds. Throughout his life, Guru Nanak challenged the social and religious norms of his time, speaking out against caste discrimination, religious extremism, and other forms of injustice. He set an example of humility and service and taught his followers to value kindness, generosity, and selflessness above all else. Today, Guru Nanak is revered as a spiritual leader and a champion of social justice and interfaith harmony. His teachings continue to inspire people of all backgrounds and beliefs, and his legacy is an enduring reminder of the power of faith, compassion, and unity to transform the world.
At the heart of Sikhism is the belief in one God, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and omnipresent. Sikhism also emphasizes the importance of living a moral and ethical life, and of serving others through acts of kindness and generosity. Guru Nanak spent most of his life spreading these teachings, traveling throughout India and beyond, attracting a large following of disciples. He was succeeded by a series of nine gurus, each of whom continued to build on his teachings and expand the Sikh community. Over time, the Sikh faith developed its distinctive identity, with its own sacred scripture (the Guru Granth Sahib), and its own religious practices (such as wearing the turban and carrying the ‘kirpan’).
Sikhism is one of the world’s major religions, with millions of followers in India, Pakistan, and around the world. And while it may have started with the spiritual journey of one man, it has grown into a vibrant and dynamic faith that has inspired millions the world over. In Pakistan, there are an estimated 30-35,000 Sikhs with majority of the populace residing in Peshawar. Many Pakistani Sikhs have emigrated to the UK, Canada, and the Gulf region over the years for better opportunities.
The Sikh Empire
Ranjit Singh was born in 1780 and he became the Maharaja (ruler) of the Sikh Empire in 1801. He was a shrewd military commander and a skilled diplomat, and under his leadership, the Sikh Empire expanded to include much of northern India and parts of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. The empire was known for its military prowess, and its army was considered one of the most formidable in the region.
Ranjit Singh was a devout Sikh and a great patron of the arts and culture. He encouraged the construction of gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) and other religious institutions, and he also promoted the study of Sikh scripture and history. He was known for his commitment to religious tolerance, and he appointed officials from a variety of religious backgrounds to serve in his government.
One of Ranjit Singh’s most enduring legacies is his role in the development of the Sikh Empire’s military and political institutions. He created a centralized administration and reformed the military, introducing new technologies and tactics that made the Sikh army one of the most formidable in the region. In the mid-19th century, the Sikh Empire came into conflict with the British East India Company, which was expanding its influence in the region. The two sides fought a series of wars, and in 1849, the British finally defeated the Sikhs and annexed their territory. Despite its relatively short existence, the Sikh Empire left a lasting mark on the history of the Indian subcontinent. It was a time of great cultural and religious innovation, and the empire’s legacy continues to be felt in the Sikh community and beyond.
Perhaps most notably, Ranjit Singh helped to cement the position of Sikhism as a major world religion. Under his rule, Sikhism flourished, and the Sikh community gained a greater sense of identity and purpose. His reign marked a high point in Sikh history, and his legacy continues to inspire Sikhs around the world today.
Sikh Pilgrimage to Pakistan & the Kartarpur Corridor
The Kartarpur Corridor is significant because it represents a rare moment of cooperation in the history of geopolitical ties between India and Pakistan, two countries with a long history of conflict and tension. The corridor is a physical link between the two countries, allowing Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan without needing a visa or going through a lengthy bureaucratic process. The gurdwara is considered one of the holiest sites in Sikhism and is believed to be the final resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion.
The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor in 2019 was seen as a positive development in India-Pakistan relations, which have been strained for decades due to issues such as territorial disputes, terrorism, and cross-border violence. The corridor was announced by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan as a “peace initiative” and was widely welcomed by the Sikh community in India and around the world.
The opening of the corridor was seen as a potential first step towards greater dialogue and cooperation between the two countries, particularly on issues related to religion and culture. However, the corridor has also been the subject of political controversy, with some critics in India accusing Pakistan of using it as a tool to promote its own interests and propaganda. Despite these criticisms, the Kartarpur Corridor remains an important symbol of hope and reconciliation between two nations that have often been at odds with each other.
Sikh Landmarks in Pakistan
For Sikhs, Pakistan is a land of pilgrimage and a place of spiritual significance. Many Sikhs from around the world travel to Pakistan each year to visit the holy sites associated with the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak, as well as other important figures in Sikh history. Sikh pilgrimage to Pakistan can be a deeply meaningful and enriching experience for those who undertake it. It provides an excellent landscape for Sikhs who which to connect with the spiritual roots of their faith and to explore the rich cultural heritage of this region.
Most Sikh pilgrims visit Lahore, which is a popular destination for individuals of Punjabi heritage. The city’s historic Old City area is home to several important Sikh landmarks, as well as a vibrant bazaar and a rich culinary tradition. The city of Lahore was an important centre of Sikh culture and learning during the time of the Sikh Empire. In addition to these religious landmarks, Pakistan is also home to several historical sites related to the Sikh Empire. The Lahore Fort, for example, was built during the Mughal Empire but many extensions were added to it during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule and served as his residence on occasion and important army barracks. It was an important symbol of the empire’s power and influence. The fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and attracts visitors from around the world.
Another favourite for Sikh pilgrims is Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, also known as Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib. This gurdwara is located just across the border from India in the Narowal district, and it is believed to be the place where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life. In 2019, a new corridor was opened between India and Pakistan, allowing Sikh pilgrims to visit the gurdwara without needing a visa. This has made it much easier for Sikhs from India and around the world to make the pilgrimage to this important site.
There are many significant gurdwaras in Pakistan, most of them marking a point of significance in Guru Nanak’s life and journey through Punjab. One of these is Gurdwara Janam Asthan, which is located in the city of Nankana Sahib and is a popular destination for Sikh pilgrims in Pakistan. It marks the birthplace of Guru Nanak and is an important site for Sikhs seeking to connect with the founder of their faith. In addition to gurdwaras that mark landmarks related to Guru Nanak, there are those that relate to other Gurus that have succeeded him.
All these landmarks are an important part of the cultural tapestry of Pakistan, and they play an important role in connecting Sikhs around the world to their religious and cultural roots.
Below is a summary of some more sites of religious significance to Sikhs. Please note that this list is not exhaustive as there are many smaller sites that might not be as well-developed or maintained as the gurdwaras on this list but may still be very notable to the religious landscape.
- Gurdwara Panja Sahib: This gurdwara is located in Hassan Abdal and is believed to mark the spot where Guru Nanak stopped to rest during his travels. It is known for its large rock, which bears the imprint of Guru Nanak’s hand.
- Gurdwara Dera Sahib: Gurdwara Dera Sahib is located in Lahore and marks the site of Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom. Guru Arjan Dev was the fifth Sikh guru and was executed by Mughal Emperor Jahangir for refusing to convert to Islam.
- Gurdwara Rori Sahib: This gurdwara in Eminabad is believed to be the site where Guru Nanak’s sister, Bibi Nanki, was married. It is a place of great importance for Sikhs and is said to have healing powers.
- Gurdwara Sacha Sauda Sahib: Located in Farooqabad, this gurdwara marks the spot where Guru Nanak is said to have sold cloth to a merchant and used the profits to feed the poor.
- Gurdwara Chota Nankiana Sahib: This gurdwara, located in Sheikhupura, is believed to have been the home of Bibi Rajni, the daughter of Guru Nanak.
- Gurdwara Bhai Lalo Ji Sahib: This gurdwara is dedicated to Bhai Lalo, a devout follower of Guru Nanak who is said to have been a model of humility and service.
- Gurdwara Tilla Baba Farid: Located in Pakpattan, this gurdwara is dedicated to the Sufi saint Baba Farid, who was highly respected by Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus.
- Gurdwara Sadhu Bela: Located on an islet in Sukkur, this gurdwara can only be reached by boat which lands right at the main gate of Sadhu Bela. The gurdwara itself is a beautiful white marble structure that can be seen from the mainland. It is said that this was the sacred place where Sri Guru Nanak Sahib Ji stayed and showed the sadhus the correct path to lead life. An important shabd was also revealed which is engraved into the front face of the building.