Prime Minister Imran Khan formally inaugurated the Kartarpur Corridor at a colourful ceremony on Saturday, paving the way for Indian Sikh pilgrims to visit one of their religion's holiest sites in Pakistan without needing a visa.
"First of all, I congratulate the Sikh community on the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak and welcome you all," the premier said at the start of his address, paying tribute to the government team for completing the Kartarpur project in a matter of months.
"I salute you all. I had no idea you were so efficient. That means we can do so much more," he told the government officials.
"I am always so happy to see the Sikh community who have come here. God lives in the hearts of all of us. All the messengers who have come and gone only ever brought two messages, that of peace and justice.
"These two things distinguish us from the animal kingdom," he said.
Prime Minister Imran noted that the lessons that can be drawn from Guru Nanak's teachings are about bringing people together and not to spread hate.
"I am happy we could do this for you," he told the hundreds of Sikh pilgrims. "Believe me, I had no idea of the importance this place holds; I found out a year ago.
He said the inability of Sikhs in the past to visit the Kartarpur shrine was akin to Muslims being able to see Madina from a distance but not be able to go near it.
"That is why I am happy to see you so happy and the way your hearts have nothing but prayers for us."
Citing the examples of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Nelson Mandela and Sufi saints, the prime minister said a true leader is one who always brings people together and does not spread hate in order to gain votes.
He continued: "The first thing I did after becoming the prime minister was to tell [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi that poverty is our mutual problem, and the way to deal with it is to open our borders to people and trade.
"I met Manmohan Singh during a conference and I remember when he was the PM he had said that 'the entire South Asia can rise if we solve Kashmir'. And that's what I told Modi.
"But I am sad to say that Kashmir has gone beyond a territorial issue. This is an issue of humanity, not a territorial dispute.
"The way they [Kashmiris] are being kept like animals. Their rights have been snatched away which the UNSC gave them.
"If Modi is listening, [he should know that] justice brings peace and injustice spreads confusion.
"Let's rid ourselves of this problem," he told Modi, referring to the Kashmir dispute. "So we can live like humans.
"Imagine the happiness that will spread and how we will be able to pull people out of poverty.
"I have hope that this is the beginning. One day our relations with India will be such that would have been had the issue of Kashmir been resolved in the beginning (at Partition).
"I also foresee a day when the hatred that has spread in the sub-continent over the past 70 years due to this dispute [will be no more].
"When this problem is solved and Kashmiris get their rights, the sub-continent will see prosperity and our entire region will rise in the world, and I pray that day is not far," he concluded.
'You've won hearts'
Former Indian cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu earlier addressed the ceremony, thanking Prime Minister Imran for taking the bold step to build the Kartarpur Corridor "without looking at gains or losses".
"You have won hearts," he said while addressing the premier.
Further heaping praise on Prime Minister Imran, he said: "There are people who are swept away by the tides of time, even the mountains bow to the tides of time, man is left spinning as it whirls by, but then there are those like Imran Khan who stand the test of time and create history.
"No benefit or loss was weighed. No deals were considered. My faithful friend (PM Imran) did this for the love of God.
"What will you gain from killing in a war? If you want to win someone over, do so by generosity. The enemy can neither die from loss that way nor be able to hold his head high after being struck by such generosity.
"This Sikh community is going to take you farther than you can fathom," he said, addressing the prime minister. "We will become your mouthpiece.
"Four generations of Sikhs were deprived; for the first time a government has [opened access to Kartarpur] for 140 million Sikhs. Alexander won the world through fear and terror. Imran Khan you are the Alexander who has won the world's hearts and you rule them all."
Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri in his speech said today's ceremony and the opening of the Kartapur Corridor is "the biggest message of peace and love" since Partition.
"Imran Khan, the promise you had made to the millions of Sikhs has been fulfilled. And I congratulate Sardar Navjot Singh as it was you who brought this idea to the prime minister.
"Baba Guru Nanak spent the last days of his life here. He spent his life bringing people together and spreading the message of love.
"In his last days here he continued to spread the message of oneness, truth, peace. His teachings carry the lessons of humanity and its well-being.
"He spent six years in Baghdad and while there every morning he would visit the shrines of Imam Moosa Kadim and Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani. This was his message of love which was a unifying force of harmony between religions.
"This project was the prime minister's personal interest and his commitment," he said, adding that he prays Prime Minister Imran will be rewarded by God for winning people's hearts.
'Doors of Kartarpur sahib have been opened'
Earlier, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in his address gave the credit for the "historic" project coming to fruition to Prime Minister Imran and the government team.
"The doors of Kartarpur sahib have been opened for you," the foreign minister said while addressing members of the Sikh community across the world.
He said the message of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev was one of peace and love, but that it needed to be reflected upon who is today "sowing the seeds of hate" in the subcontinent.
"If the Berlin Wall can be demolished, if the Kartarpur Corridor can be opened, then the temporary boundary of the Line of Control can also be ended," Qureshi said, adding that the promise of granting the right of self-determination to the people of occupied Kashmir can also be fulfilled.
He asked Indian Prime Minister Modi, who had earlier in the day thanked Prime Minister Imran, whether he will also give his Pakistani counterpart the chance to thank him.
"You can do so," he told Modi, "by lifting the curfew in occupied Kashmir, ending the use of pellet guns, ending the violations of human rights [and] by ending the communication blackout".
He expressed the wish that Modi will open the Srinagar Jamia Mosque for Kashmiri Muslims the way the Kartarpur gurdwara was opened for the Sikh community by Pakistan.
The minister announced that the prime minister has identified 400 temples in the country which will be renovated.
Manmohan leads Sikhs delegation
Sikhs from across the border started arriving in Pakistan today to make a historic pilgrimage to the shrine of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, which is located in Kartarpur, as Islamabad and New Delhi made history by opening the Kartarpur Corridor.
Prime Minister Imran arrived at the corridor inauguration ceremony using the shuttle service used by pilgrims, according to state broadcaster PTV.
The premier was accompanied by Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, Governor Chaudhry Sarwar, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri and other officials.
Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh led the first delegation of Sikh pilgrims as they crossed into Pakistan through the Kartarpur Corridor. Indian Punjab's Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was also part of the jatha (caravan).
"I hope India and Pakistan relations improve enormously as a result of this beginning," Manmohan told PTV as he walked towards the Pakistan side, terming the occasion a "big moment".
The Indian Punjab chief minister said they were all happy because it had been a desire of Sikhs to visit their religious sites in Pakistan for 70 years.
"This is a beginning, I hope it's going to continue and many more gurdwaras are going to be allowed," he remarked.
Besides Sidhu, Bollywood actor-turned-politician Sunny Deol also attended the opening ceremony.
Foreign diplomats, accompanied by Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal and Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood, were also in attendance.
Before seeing off the first group of pilgrims, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed members of the Sikh community and hailed the opening of the corridor.
"I also thank Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan for understanding India's wishes and turning Kartarpur into reality," Modi said in his speech. He also thanked the labour in both countries for completing the construction in such a short time.
The Indian premier said that Baba Guru Nanak was not just a revered figure for Sikhs but for the entire humanity.
About 8,000-10,000 pilgrims are expected to arrive from around the world to mark Guru Nanak's 550th birthday on November 12.
The premier had performed the groundbreaking of the visa-free corridor last year. Since then, the government has employed hundreds of labourers to spruce up the shrine, including building a border immigration checkpoint and a bridge, as well as expanding the site's grounds. After tough negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi, Pakistan and India had finally signed an agreement regarding the project last month.
Ahead of the opening, the prime minister also announced special waivers in order to facilitate Indian pilgrims. Pilgrims who arrive from India will no longer need a passport to cross over into Pakistan as long as they have a valid identity.
The premier had also announced that he had directed that the condition for pilgrims to register 10 days before their arrival at the Kartarpur shrine be waived.
Furthermore, the pilgrims who arrive on the day of the Kartarpur Corridor's opening and on Baba Guru Nanak's 550th birth anniversary will not be charged any fee to visit.
Up to 5,000 Indian Sikhs have been allowed access daily, with plans to eventually double the capacity.
Sikhs from around the world — including some from India who entered from the main border crossing at Wagah after obtaining visas — have been arriving in Pakistan ahead of the celebrations for several days already.
Opening border and hearts
In a statement issued hours before the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, Prime Minister Imran congratulated the Sikh community residing in Pakistan as well as in India on the occasion.
The premier said that the "unprecedented gesture of goodwill [...] is a reflection of our deep respect for Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji and religious sentiments of Sikh community".
"Today we are not only opening border but also our hearts for the Sikh community," the statement read.
The prime minister in his statement further said: "The inauguration today is also a testimony of our commitment towards peace of the region. We believe that the road to prosperity of region and bright future of our coming generation lies in peace. We believe that interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence will provide us an opportunity to work for larger interests of people of the sub-continent.
"While congratulating the Sikh community once again, I also wish to thank all those who contributed towards transforming this vision in reality in record time of 10 months only."
For up to 30 million Sikhs around the world, it is one of their holiest places. When Pakistan was carved out of colonial India at independence from Britain in 1947, Kartarpur ended up on the western side of the border — though most of the region's Sikhs remained on the other side.
For them, it is tantalisingly close — just four kilometres inside Pakistan, so near that Indian Sikhs have been known to stand on the other side and simply gaze across the divide at the site.
But decades of enmity between India and Pakistan has left extreme restrictions on their ability to visit.
“This land is sacred for them,” Habib Khan, the 63-year-old imam of a small mosque just outside the gurdwara, told AFP on Friday.
Vans of pilgrims could be seen travelling through Kartarpur on Friday.
The Indian flag could be seen flying across the border, just beyond fields dotted with eucalyptus and guava trees — though it was half obscured by the heavy smog that has blanketed large swathes of South Asia in recent days.
Contingents of Rangers dotted the rice-growing region which, being so close to the border, is heavily secured, with multiple checkpoints.
With additional reporting by Sanaullah Khan in Islamabad.