ISLAMABAD - Pakistan is set to open a new dedicated border crossing with rival India on Saturday, giving Indian Sikh pilgrims year-round, visa-free access to one of their holiest shrines in Pakistan.
The temple, or gurdwara, in the town of Kartarpur in Punjab province is about 4 kilometers from the border with India. It is believed to have been built on the site where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, died in the 16th century.
India and Pakistan signed an agreement last month to facilitate Indian devotees intending to visit the shrine, known as the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur.
As many as 5,000 Sikh pilgrims from India will be able to visit the temple each day, arriving in the morning and returning in the evening.
The rare cooperation between the nuclear-armed rivals comes amid a sharp deterioration in their already tense ties sparked by recent Indian actions in the disputed Kashmir territory.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will travel to the border town to inaugurate the crossing and the newly established corridor that features fenced-off sides and leads straight to the temple.
Saturday's opening will come just in time for the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak's birth on Nov. 12. Senior government officials, ministers and Pakistan-based foreign diplomats, among others, will be in attendance.
An Indian delegation of around 600 prominent dignitaries, including former prime ministers, will travel to Pakistan for the event, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar at a news conference Thursday in New Delhi.
Kumar did not give any names, though Pakistan says it has formally invited former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, among others, to attend the ceremony.
'Corridor of peace and tolerance'
The minority Sikh community in India has demanded access to the shrine for decades. But bilateral tensions blocked progress until last year when Pakistan itself offered to open the Kartarpur crossing.
The border entry point and corridor will replace a drawn-out visa process and drastically reduce a long journey through Pakistan for Indian Sikh pilgrims to reach the temple.
Officials said Pakistani diplomatic missions in Britain, Canada, Australia and other parts of the world have also issued about 5,000 visas to Sikh devotees residing in those countries and plan to visit Kartarpur for the upcoming pilgrimage.
Some of them have already arrived and are touring the Kartarpur shrine.
"I am thrilled by what we have seen today," said Bahjan Singh Grewal, who teaches at Melbourne's Victoria University.
The 77-year-old professor of economics spoke to VOA inside the sprawling white-marbled complex surrounding the holy temple built and renovated by Pakistan, a nine-month project costing millions of dollars.
"I am an economist. I know that it's not easy to create new infrastructure. But this is a fantastic facility and it reflects the love, the dedication and the sincerity of the people (of Pakistan) towards the Sikhs," said Grewal.
Pakistan has constructed a road and a bridge over the Ravi River, along with dozens of fully equipped immigration reception centers for pilgrims. Officials told reporters the dining area near the shrine can host more than 2,500 pilgrims at a time where they will be served free of cost food.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal noted the massive construction effort has turned the temple into the world's biggest Sikh gurdwara. A new courtyard, dormitories, locker rooms, library, museum, and an embankment to protect the shrine from floods have been built in consultation with experts from the Sikh community, officials said.
While the Kartarpur entry point is being hailed as a significant development, with some describing it as "a corridor of peace and tolerance," analysts say the initiative is unlikely to ease tensions between Pakistan and India.
Bilateral tensions have intensified since early August when New Delhi unilaterally abolished special constitutional autonomy for Indian-administered part of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region and bifurcated it into two union territories.
Pakistan, which also controls a portion of the Himalayan territory, swiftly denounced the action and downgraded diplomatic relations with India to protest it.
Both the countries claim the divided region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which remains the primary sources of regional tensions.