DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For decades, India's Sikhs have tried to reach one of their holiest sites - a domed white temple. It is where they believe their founder died. This temple is just across a hostile border in Pakistan, but a rare goodwill gesture between the two countries this week could make visiting easier. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid.
GREENE: Indian Sikhs have longed to feel near their holy site. It's called Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur. Worshippers like Devinder Singh have even clambored on platforms built on the Indian side just to gaze at it.
DEVINDER SINGH: Just from three kilometer, we are watching many time.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: He says they've watched the temple from a distance, but now he's in Pakistan for his first visit. This week, India and Pakistan broke ground on a short corridor, and Devinder Singh might come here a lot more. The corridor will allow Indian Sikhs visa-free access to the Gurdwara for the first time in 70 years. That's when the British ended their rule of South Asia and partitioned the continent. Most Sikhs, more than 20 million, ended up in India. The holiest sites were left in Pakistan. And between them is a largely closed, militarized border. Inder Singh is one of the hundreds of Indian Sikhs who came to attend the groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan.
INDER SINGH: (Through translator) I'm really happy. We never imagined this would happen. I think it's a miracle with the grace of Baba Guru Nanak.
HADID: A miracle? Perhaps. Plans for this crossing have been around for 20 years, but it was buried under flaring hostilities. At the ceremony, the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, used the rare moment of goodwill to call for peace. Pakistan and India have waged three wars against each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER IMRAN KHAN: (Through translator) We want a civilized relationship. There's no problem that can't be solved if you want to solve it.
HADID: Singh, the pilgrim, shares Khan's frothy optimism. He says people yearn for peace.
I. SINGH: (Through translator) When I get off the train here, people impress me. They invite me for tea.
HADID: And then Singh melted into a crowd of hundreds of worshippers, men in colorful turbans and women in headscarves. They rushed into the soaring structure topped with domes where worshippers played music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HADID: But analysts say it's unlikely anything will change. Critics say Pakistan's dragged its feet on cracking down on militants. They're accused of conducting deadly cross-border attacks. The current Indian ruling party, which is right-wing and Hindu nationalist, is particularly hostile. A former head of Pakistan's intelligence agency, Javed Ashraf Qazi, says he believes the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, agreed to build India's part of the corridor with an eye to support from Sikhs in upcoming elections.
JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: By denying Kartarpur Crossing, he would have annoyed Sikh community.
HADID: For Pakistan, Qazi said the gesture was meant to improve the country's troubled image.
QAZI: It will certainly earn lot of goodwill Pakistan and for Imran Khan amongst the Sikhs, not only in India but also abroad.
HADID: The inauguration comes a year before Sikhs commemorate the 550th death anniversary of Guru Nanak. Pakistan hopes the event will bring thousands of religious tourists. Pilgrims like Inder Singh say that's great timing.
KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).
HADID: He says, "this is just the beginning." And maybe, he hopes, it will lead to a time when the border just doesn't matter anymore. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Kartarpur Crossing.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say that next year Sikhs will commemorate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak's death. In fact, they will commemorate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak's birth.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.