Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur

The first time I laid eyes on Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpar, it was through a pair of powerful binoculars. Fixed atop a viewing platform policed by the Border Security Force (BSF), and located in Dera Baba Nanak (DBN) near the Indian border with Pakistan in Gurdaspur district.  I stared long, and squinted hard, yet Guru Nanak’s final resting place, for the most part, remained a gleaming speck of white on the distant horizon. It lay beyond an insurmountable concertina coil fence, at the far end of a vast tract of farmland, less than five kilometers from where I stood.  I recall the paved path back to the parking lot was flanked by countless banners demanding easier access to the sacred site. That was nearly a decade ago. In November 2019, a month shy of the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh faith, the Kartarpur Corridor became a long longed-for reality.

Last month, I availed this newly minted visa-free border crossing to get a closer look at that gleaming speck. I found the process, for the presently pemitted day excursion, by-and-large smooth and hassle-free. In this post I share travel-friendly information based on my recent experience, should you–Indian nationals & OCIs–be planning a visit. To start with, make sure you have at least two weeks in hand before your intended travel date, and a valid passport. The portal for online registration is uncomplicated and easy to navigate, but do read through and understand all instructions provided carefully. Also, remember to keep PDFs of relevant passport pages and a scanned passport size photograph handy before filling out the online form.  

A successful registration wil be acknowledged via text message to the mobile number shared. This will be followed by a physical verification of your home address et al by the local police station. Expect a friendly phone call from the Ministry of Home Affairs double-checking on details furnished in the registration form. That permission to travel has been granted will be shared via a subsequent text only four days prior to date of intended visit. Following which, visitors are required to show up at the Passenger Terminal Building at Dera Baba Nanak with a print-out of the Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), along with their passports or OCI documents, as the case may be.

At the terminal, visitors will go through all the formalities international travel entails – security check, immigration, customs – including a booster dose of polio drops. The ETA form (and not the passport) is to be proferred at all counters for necessary stamps, keep it safe as it will be collected by Immigration on your return later in the day. Customs permit upto twenty-five thousand Indian rupees in cash for personal use, a declaration to this effect will need to be signed. Once done, a short golf buggy ride brings visitors to the Zero Line some 100 metres away, a quick document re-check here and you can walk through the border gates into Pakistan.

Another brief buggy ride drops visitors outside the Passenger Terminal at Kartarpur. Where a row of counters manned by the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) collect the mandatory service charge of USD20 in cash. Though currency exchange booths are also located here, you do well to carry the exact amount in dollars, if possible. One half of the receipt thus provided will be collected by Pakistan immigration authorities on arrival – along side visitor biometrics (digital photos and electronic fingerprints) – and the remaining stub on departure back to Dera Baba Nanak.

Visitors are provided with identification cards that are to be sported throughout the visit, the brilliant yellow lanyards telling you apart from the reds worn by domestic visitors. These need to be returned at the time of departure, please do not lose or misplace. Subject to number of visitors on a given day, the entire process from DBN Terminal to Kartarpur Terminal including ferrying time takes no more than 15-20 minutes. The comfortable bus-ride to the Darshani Deodi (viewing gate) of the gurdwara thereon, splicing through lush fields and across a bridge over the Ravi river, is less than five minutes.

Visitors are welcomed at the Darshani Deodi by volunteers with helpful information about the shrine, points of interest, where to find them in the sprawling complex, and answers to any queries you may have. To the right through the main entrance are the joda ghar to deposit footwear, and locker rooms to avoid lugging around unnecessary personal effects. In any case, you’re allowed to carry only one piece of hand baggage, weighing no more than 7kgs. A change of clothes, I suppose, should be enough if you’re planning on a dip in the indoor sarovars on the premises.  

The double-storeyed sanctum sits serenely in the middle of an expansive complex, hosting a mazaar outside and a samadh inside.  In a widely acknowledged legend, the Guru’s death in 1539 resulted in a conflict surrounding his funerary rights amongst his multi-faith disciples. Following which, his body disappeared and was found replaced with a mound of flowers, half of which were buried, the other half cremated. Unsurprisingly, visitors of all religious persuasions continue to pay homage to this peerless thinker and founder of a world religion.

The rumala-draped marble mazaar to the front of the gurdwara entrance marks the place where Guru Nanak’s Muslim followers buried his remains. Not far from this spot are two wells that hark back to the Guru’s time, and are believed to have been used by him to water the fields of the Kartarpur commune he established and where he spent the last years of his life.

This similarly-clad marble samadh at ground level inside the gurdwara is where the Hindus are said to have cremated his remains. The Granth Sahib, holy scriptures of the Sikh faith, is placed on the floor above, and is accessed for supplication through narrow spiral staircases placed to the back of the structure.

The spotless langar hall where simple vegetarian meals are provided free of cost to one and all, regardless of class, creed, gender or faith. As ordained by Guru Nanak himself, an advocate of universality, and since enshrined in the tenets of the Sikh faith. An equally hygienic community kitchen adjacent to it had volunteers cooking, cleaning and serving visitors with freshly prepared dal, sabzi, parshada (roti), sweetened rice and hot chai.

Spread across a gobsmacking 42 acres, up from the earlier four, the premises of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib are edged by a colonnaded corridor on three sides. This passageway fronts a number of facilities meant for the explicit use of visitors. Two indoor sarovars – one for men, the other for women – an exhibition hall, disourse rooms, a diwan hall, dormitories and public conveniences. The fourth side opens out towards lush farmland referred to as Kheti Sahib.

A ‘high street’ of souvenir shops, food stalls and forex kiosks has been set up beyond the langar hall, past the entrance for domestic visitors. A few of the establishments accept Indian currency but most prefer Pakistani rupees. I bought myself a keepsake I’m a hundred percent certain I can find in a neighbourhood market in Chandigarh. But hey, no one should have to return minus a momento from their visit to a ‘foreign’ land. Never mind that said land is inextricably joined to India’s western hip.

Visitors are expected to leave the gurdwara premises latest by 4PM to make the return to DBN. Buses, waiting at the parking bay near Darshani Deodi, ferry you back to the Kartarpur Terminal. Here, you will be required to handover the ID lanyards, as well as, the remaining stub of the service charge receipt. You will also be required to go through a biometric check of your fingerprints before hopping onto that buggy ride back to Zero Line. On the other side of the gate, similar buggies wait to ferry you to DBN Terminal. Have your hand baggage security checked once again, hand over the ETA form to Immigration personnel and you’re home.

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