Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, the Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.
Millions of people around the world embark annually on spiritual journeys to placate their souls. Although one often hears or reads about tourism and travel in general, deliberations on religious tourism usually evade the perceptions of many. This, however, does not mean that religious tourism is not popular. In fact, global religious tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of travel today.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, 300-330 million tourists visit the globe’s most important religious sites every year. To put things into a better perspective, almost 2.5 million Muslims performed the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia in 2019. Conversely, almost 4 million Christian pilgrims attended papal events, prayers services, or liturgies in the Vatican during the Holy Year of Mercy in 2016.
Pakistan’s Tourism Trends
Pakistan has been constantly labeled as the next big thing in tourism for years but could not achieve this potential due to a bureaucratic visa system as well as the unstable security situation in the country. This, however, is changing due to a new streamlined visa process, the improved security situation, as well as the introduction of online visas. In 2018, the British Backpacker Society listed the country as the #1 tourism destination worldwide.
Tourism numbers have picked up in recent years with popular international vloggers and writers praising and promoting the country’s idyllic landscape as well as the locals’ profound hospitality. However, the country is still lagging when compared to South Asian and global tourism numbers. Therefore, concerted efforts need to be made to further proliferate tourism in the country. Effectively leveraging the country’s Sikh tourism potential is an essential avenue in realizing this goal.
Sikhism and Pakistan
Pakistan has a storied romance with Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. Guru Nanak is the central figure of Sikhism and by extension the most revered personality for Sikhs around the world. Sikhism has an estimated 27 million followers worldwide of which most are based in India. According to India’s latest 2011 census, there are around 20.8 million Sikhs in the country of which 77% are concentrated in the province of Punjab – which neighbors Pakistan’s Punjab.
Due to Pakistan and India’s shared history (both were a single country before 1947) vis-à-vis Sikhism and their large numbers in the subcontinent, many Sikhs are cognizant of how Pakistan is an abundantly spiritual land for them. Listed below are some of the holy places of Sikhism in Pakistan that make the country such a special land for Sikhs. Pakistan hosts a small number of Sikhs, around 6,000, who mainly reside in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The US State Department, however, claims the number of Sikhs in the country to be around 20,000.
Contrastingly, on the other side of the border, in India, there are 20.8 million Sikhs according to India’s 2011 census. Although Pakistan-Indian relations are frosty due to a fractured and contentious past, Pakistan welcomes Sikhs from India who come in the thousands to perform pilgrimage of their spiritual sites every year. Sikhs also arrive in Pakistan from the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Pilgrimages are performed on the birthday of Guru Nanak, the Sikh New Year, and death anniversaries of central Sikh figures.
Holy Places of Sikhism
Pakistan is blessed with vast natural landscapes stretching from the north of the country to the south as well as a rich cultural and religious legacy that is difficult to find elsewhere. Not only does the country host some of the most surreal Buddhist relics and stupas from the Gandhara Civilization but it also hosts some of the most significant holy places in Sikhism. These religious sites are usually in the shape of a gurdwara – a Sikh temple.
Gurdwara Panja Sahib
Gurdwara Panja Sahib is one of the most awe-inspiring holy places for Sikhism. Located in Hassan Abdal, Punjab, it is believed that Guru Nanak’s own handprint is imprinted on a boulder there. Sikhs believe that water has been gushing from the same boulder from the time of the handprint until today. I have been lucky enough to visit this holy place twice and it is quite spectacular. The gurdwara is surrounded by water flowing from the boulder and huge fish in considerable amounts can be found swimming here.
Many Sikhs live in the area with Muslims in an idyllic manner. The Muslims here celebrate Sikh holy days with them, while the Sikhs participate in Eid festivities with the Muslims. There is decent lodging for Sikh pilgrims in the same gurdwara compound as well as a Sikh school and langar (community kitchen). Sikh pilgrims touch the handprint of the Guru in respect and bathe in the water, which is considered holy. This is one of the most frequently visited religious sites for Sikh pilgrims.
Gurdwara Nankana Sahib
Near Lahore lies the historic city of Nankana Sahib, which hosts several Sikh pilgrimage sites. Sikhs are primarily drawn to the gurdwara known as Gurdwara Nankana Sahib due to it being Guru Nanak’s birthplace – this evidences its integral status to the Sikh faith. Gurdwara Nankana Sahib is part of a collective of nine other important gurdwaras in the city which are all endeared by followers of Sikhism.
Gurdwara Dera Sahib and the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh
In Lahore itself, there are a few pilgrimage locations for followers of Guru Nanak. Gurdwara Dera Sahib marks the location of the death of the fifth guru of Sikhism, Guru Arjan. The gurdwara is next to the iconic Mughal constructed Badshahi Masjid. Sikh pilgrims arrive and perform religious rites in the gurdwara on special occasions such as the death anniversary of Guru Arjan. Adjacent to the gurdwara is another religiously noteworthy place – the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh united the Sikh people and established the prosperous Sikh Empire. The Samadhi of Ranjit Singh is a beautiful building that houses his ashes inside a marble urn.
Gurdwara Sri Sacha Sauda Sahib
Gurdwara Sri Sacha Sauda Sahib is a gurdwara in Farooqabad, Punjab. The gurdwara has ties to an event involving Guru Nanak and his compassion for humanity. It is where the gurdwara rests today that the Guru used all his money, originally earmarked for business, to feed hungry people that he encountered on his way.
Gurdwara Chowa Sahib
Quite recently, the Pakistani government opened the doors of the extraordinary Gurdwara Chowa Sahib in Punjab after 72 years. The gurdwara is located near the legendary Rohtas Fort, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The significance of this place is tied to Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana – the Guru’s long-time companion. It is believed that both were traveling during the summer when Bhai Mardana expressed his thirst to Guru Nanak.
Upon hearing his friend’s plea for water, Guru Nanak struck his cane on the earth moving a stone that revealed a natural spring. The gurdwara marks the spot of this miracle – it was constructed in 1834 and was commissioned by Ranjit Singh. The gurdwara was opened in the run-up to Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in November 2019. The ceremony, which reopened the gurdwara, commenced with an ardaas (prayer) and kirtans (devotional songs) by Pakistan’s Sikh community.
Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur
Lastly, and most importantly due to unfolding recent events, is the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur. It is located in Kartarpur, Punjab, and is situated inside Pakistan only a few kilometers from the border with India. So close is this gurdwara that it is visible from the Indian side of the border. Sikh pilgrims on the Indian side use binoculars to appease their religious sensibilities from afar. The magnetism that pulls Sikhs to this place is again tied to Guru Nanak.
After his missionary work, he settled down in Kartarpur with a loyal Sikh community. He remained here until he eventually passed away. The gurdwara sits on the location where he passed on. The Kartarpur Corridor was a long-planned border corridor that would connect Dera Baba Nanak, a gurdwara in India, with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, in Pakistan, so that Sikhs can perform pilgrimage visa-free. In November 2018, in a move that all Sikhs extolled, Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone for the Kartarpur Corridor.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was joined by two central Indian ministers and he assured the Sikh community that the corridor would be open before Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in November 2019. The corridor was in the mainstream news very recently both in Pakistan and India due to its successful inauguration by Prime Minister Imran Khan on November 9, 2019, where he welcomed 12,000 Sikh pilgrims from Pakistan, India, and other countries.
Three days later, on the 550th birthday of the Guru, thousands of Sikhs poured into Kartarpur to perform the pilgrimage. Sikhs from around the world and especially in India have hailed the project. Perhaps via the corridor, Guru Nanak and his tranquil legacy could help mollify the animosity between Pakistan and India.
What Needs to Be Done
Due to the influx of thousands of Sikhs entering Pakistan every year, it has warranted the effective maintenance of the aforementioned holy places of Sikhism as well as others. Most of the sites mentioned above have good lodging nearby; however, more can be done in terms of facilitating both Sikhs and non-Sikh tourists. Previously forgotten sites such as the recently reopened Gurdwara Chowa Sahib needs to be given further attention vis-à-vis maintenance. Signboards on the history of the attractions should be provided in major languages.
Tour guides should be well versed in Punjabi (the language of the Sikhs and many people in Pakistan) and English. In addition, leaflets in various languages should be provided. Furthermore, a Sikh museum, similar to the Taxila Museum (that houses legendary Buddhist relics), but with international standards, should be created. This museum would benefit being situated nearby a Sikh shrine, such as the Panja Sahib or Nankana Sahib Gurdwara.
Although many Sikhs are mindful of the most integral pilgrimage sites in Pakistan such as Gurdwara Panja Sahib and Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, the lesser-known holy places of Sikhism must also be promoted heavily so that tourism and Sikh heritage thrives. Concerning the international audience, which is largely unaware of Sikhism’s connection to Pakistan, more must be done. For example, Pakistan can try to place its historic Sikh sites on the UNESCO world heritage list so these locations garner international appeal.
Tourism video packages created by the government should mention Sikh and Buddhist religious sites in the country. Furthermore, well-known Sikhs and other vloggers should be invited to Pakistan to showcase not only the majestic gurdwaras but also the hospitality of the Pakistani people. Pakistan has been hosting thousands of Sikh pilgrims for decades but maintains a ceiling on the total number of Sikh pilgrims allowed (due to frosty relations with India). The Pakistan government provides medical facilities as well as security to Sikh pilgrims and has continued to do so every year.
For Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary in 2016, 3,000 Sikhs arrived to perform religious rites. In 2017, 2,600 Sikhs arrived to celebrate the Guru’s birth anniversary while in 2018, 3800 Sikhs were hosted by the country for the same event. This latter number has been one of the highest but Pakistan aimed to further increase this number due to the Kartarpur Corridor and Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.
Liberalizing access for Indian Sikhs and others was a watershed moment as it allowed thousands of hopefuls to visit their holy places in Pakistan and will yield even better results in the future due to the Kartarpur Corridor. This can help improve the current abhorrent relations between both nations.
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