HASSANABDAL: Pakistan wins many a heart again. Gurdwara Panja Saheb is teeming with Sikhs and echoing with generous laughers, often interrupted by a louder than normal recitation of kirtan - hymns from the Guru Granth sahib.
“Weather has been pleasant and the food is great and free. And I am in my Guru’s home. What else shall I desire,” exclaimed Bheesham Singh, a grey-bearded old man from Faisalabad.
Pakistan Prabhandhak Sikh Gurdwara Committee and the Evacuee Trust Property Board team up to work out logistics, food and medical facilities for the pilgrims. Everything is provided free of cost and in sufficient supply.
“It’s my second visit here. Previously, I came with my wife on honeymoon,” he said, pointing to his wife who was sitting with her new friends from India in a corner to his right. Bheesham regrets that his three brothers could never come here despite their deepest prayers.
Some 2,100 yatrees could make it to from India and 200 from Afghanistan. This year’s turnout of pilgrims from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Kenya, South Africa, UK, elsewhere in Europe and North America remained in the proximity of 8,000.
Every year, Sikhs assemble here from 1st of Baisakh, around mid-April, to perform rituals of Ardas, Paath Saheb and Bhog Akhand Paath. Guru Nanak arrived here with his companions in early 15th century.
There are different versions of Guru Nanak’s encounter with Baba Wali Qandhari, who used to live atop a steep mountain. However, many Sikh pilgrims do make it a point to visit the hill, whose ascent has become easier, thanks to a cemented stairway.
On the second leg of the pilgrims’ visit, they will visit Nankana Sahib to see the gurdwaras there. The third and final destination of the tour will be Lahore where not only Gurdwara Dera Sahib is situated but is also a city ruled by the Sikhs.
“It was my fourth attempt for visa. I could not secure it thrice before. No doubt visa regime is complex, there are many middlemen who take undue advantage of the situation,” said a middle-aged visitor from India, who didn’t want to disclose his name. The Ferozepur resident had paid the local police Rs 20,000 in bribe to get the security clearance for the visa.
“I don’t regret paying this money for visiting the holy sites. I am still a beneficiary as it has enabled me seek forgiveness here,” he said.
A few clean-shaven younger men were busy taking selfies or cracking jokes while sitting on stairs on the banks of the pond. The pilgrims not only drink the pond water for health but also take bath in it to ‘purge’ their soul and body of sins.
Since the sprawling market outside the gurdwara had been ordered closed, the stalls of religious posters, dresses and CDs of kirtans kept young and old visitors busy. Small makeshift shops selling idols, bells for temples, lockets and small plates, did impressive business as well. Men partied over snacks, fruits juices and cold drinks, all provided for free by some yatrees who ‘opted this as way to serve humanity and seek forgiveness’.
Over 1,500 security personnel from various departments had been deployed to keep vigil. A Sikh clergyman suggested to Daily Times that the Pakistan government should allow teaching of Gurmukhi, the language used in Sikh religious texts, as a compulsory subject for Sikh students in schools affiliated with the gurdawars.
The Sikh community believes that their youth exceeds 2.5 million in schools across the country but they are not being taught their religious language.
“Is it not the right of my children as citizens of Pakistan? Does not the constitution guarantee equal rights to all children - education and religious education included?” he inquired.
Gurmukhi is currently being taught only in Nankana Sahib, besides two others institutions in Peshawar.
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