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NANKANA SAHIB: The scent of flowers and perfume hangs in the air as thousands of Sikhs from India were welcomed to Pakistan on Friday for one of the world's biggest birthday celebrations: the 552nd birth anniversary of the Guru Nanak.

The festivities were taking place at the shrine to the founder of the Sikh religion in Nankana Sahib, the Pakistani city where he was born in 1469.

The emotion is heightened this year, as devotees from Pakistan's arch-rival India were unable to cross the border in 2020, due to coronavirus restrictions.

"I have goosebumps, I can't explain how I'm feeling," Darshan Singh, a 70-year-old farmer from India, tells AFP.

"I never thought we would get this sort of love from our Pakistani brothers," he says. "These women are not Sikh, these children know nothing about our faith, but they are standing up to welcome us with open arms and clean hearts."

Many others were similarly swept up in the rare sense of cross-border unity between Pakistanis and Indians, divided when the subcontinent was partitioned at independence in 1947.

Guru Nanak's birth anniversary: Over 8,000 Sikh pilgrims to visit Pakistan

Annie Munjal, a 24-year-old from Delhi, says her grandparents often told her stories of growing up in Pakistan's Lahore, near the Indian border, before partition.

"We had heard from them how Pakistan was, but we never got to see," she says. "Now we are here... they are just like us."

The celebration of more than 12,000 people at the shrine, or gurdwara, is infectious.

Curious Muslim residents of the city stand on their rooftops to watch, and shower the Sikh processions with rose petals and chocolates.

At the main gates, young Muslims and Hindus join Sikhs in dancing to the beat of the dhol, a South Asian drum.

Posters welcoming the pilgrims alternate with heavy security on the streets leading to the shrine.

The devotees, many of them barefoot, wave saffron flags as they sing hymns and recite poetry and religious texts -- all before a massive lunch of rice, naan, chickpeas and sweets.

'Long wait is over'

The first of ten gurus who developed the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak's teachings laid the basis for a community that now numbers up to 30 million across the world.

But most of the faithful are now in India, where their families fled the sectarian violence that claimed millions of lives during partition.

It was only in 2019 that Pakistan opened a visa-free corridor allowing Sikhs from India to visit Kartarpur, a town where another shrine built to mark the guru's death lies.

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented Indians from crossing in 2020. This year authorities agreed to reopen the corridor, and the faithful began streaming across in preparation for the birthday celebrations this week.

Some stayed in Kartarpur, while many made their way 180 kilometres (110 miles) southwest to join those celebrating in Nankana Sahib.

"My years long wait is finally over. I am steps away from my guru's home," Buljit Kaur, a 61-year-old pilgrim from India, tells AFP in Nankana Sahib.

Pervaiz Ahmed, a 41 year old local doctor was coming out of a mosque on the same street as the gurdwara.

"Sikhs find their roots here, this is the place they belong to. We have no objections seeing them coming in such big numbers," he said.

The Indian farmer, Darshan Singh, says he will return with his family.

"This is the first time I came to Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, and it looks like I have wasted 70 years of my life," he says.

"The emotions and feelings cannot be explained."

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