Thousands of Indian Sikhs arrive in Pakistan for religious festival

Lahore, Pakistan - About 2,000 Sikhs arrived Monday from neighboring India to attend a religious festival at a shrine near the Pakistani capital, an official said.

Two trainloads of Indian pilgrims traveled to the eastern city of Lahore, where they were met by Pakistanis who offered them food and garlands in a traditional welcome, said Izharul Hassan, a government official.

They were to travel later to the town of Hasanabadal, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the capital, Islamabad, to celebrate the Vaisakhi harvest festival, one of the most important days for the Sikh faith.

The festival, which begins Tuesday, commemorates the day in 1699 when Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh established certain customs for the Sikh religion _ founded 200 years earlier _ such as giving all men the name Singh and forbidding them from cutting their hair or beards.

During their eight-day stay in Pakistan, the pilgrims will also visit several other Sikh temples, Hassan said.

Increasing numbers of Indians and Pakistanis are now traveling to each other's countries to visit religious sites, meet with relatives and watch sporting events, thanks to more than a year-old thaw in previously frosty relations.

Leaders of the two countries began steps more than a year ago to bury over half a century of hatred, mainly because of a dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided between the two. They have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from British rule in 1947.

Recent moves for peace by both sides have restored severed transportation links and eased travel restrictions.

On Thursday, the two nations restored a bus service connecting the divided portions of Kashmir. The travel link was snapped in 1948, when their dispute over Kashmir intensified.

Meanwhile, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Pakistan will open another border crossing with India near the city of Kasur in Punjab province once the issue of Kashmir and all other disputes between the two countries are settled.

Musharraf is expected to travel to India on April 16 to watch a cricket match. He has said he will discuss Kashmir with Indian leaders during the visit.