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Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari meets Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi before making a trip to a famous Sufi shrine in Ajmer. Photograph: Prakash Singh/Pool/EPA
Zardari was on his way on Sunday to pray at the shrine of a famous Muslim saint 250 miles south-east of the Indian capital.
Though originally mooted as a personal religious pilgrimage, the trip has now raised hopes that the long chill in relations between the two south Asian states could be close to ending.
The last Pakistani leader to make the journey was President Pervez Musharraf in 2005.
Manoj Joshi, a Delhi-based security analyst and journalist, said the visit "goes beyond symbolism".
"Historically, whenever things have been stuck, they have eventually got unblocked. Both [leaders] are keen on a peace agenda and this means they can get together informally without the pressure of coming up with any solution," Joshi said.
However one shadow over the meeting was the announcement last week that the US has offered a $10m (£6.2m) reward for information leading to the conviction of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Pakistan-based militant group held responsible in India for the terrorist attack in Mumbai, the Indian commercial capital, in 2008 which ended a relative thaw in relations between the neighbours.
Pakistani authorities have refused to take action against the veteran extremist, arguing there is no evidence against him despite a series of dossiers passed to them by Delhi which Indian officials say contain proof of his guilt.
Zardari arrived amid heavy security with more than 40 others – including his 23-year-old son and apparent political heir, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto – and travelled almost immediately to a personal meeting with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Their "informal talk" was to be followed by a larger lunch attended by Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, and her own son and political heir, 41-year-old Rahul. The Pakistani premier was then scheduled to leave for the shrine at Ajmer.
At the lunch meeting the two leaders were expected to avoid controversial topics.
"The [prime minister] will stick only to trade and cultural affairs," an Indian government official told the Guardian.
Pakistan, hit by successive economic crises, promised booming India most favoured nation trade status last year.
Zardari has repeatedly made it clear he would like to see better relations with India. However he is hobbled by a hawkish security establishment and his government's poor economic performance. Before flying to India he consulted with General Ashfaq Kayani, the head of Pakistan's military.
Born in a village in what is now Pakistan, Singh too has demonstrated a commitment to peace during his two terms in office, despite the 2008 ouster of Musharraf, with whom he had built trust and vocal opposition from Indian right wing parties.
Informal meetings, during international cricket matches, rather than major summits have become the hallmark of Singh's diplomacy.
In November, the soft-spoken 79-year-old economist met Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in the Maldives and promised to open a new chapter in their troubled history. However, Singh also faces domestic issues. His administration has been effectively paralysed by infighting, corruption scandals and coalition politics for 18 months.
It is likely however that, despite public denials, the thorny question of the future of Kashmir will be raised. The disputed former Himalayan princely state has been the trigger of two of three wars between the two countries since independence from Britain in 1947 and is a continuing point of tension.
Western powers have made efforts to nudge both states towards settling their differences in recent years, recognising that a lasting Pakistan-India peace would go a long way to smoothing a perilous transition in Afghanistan as most Nato combat forces prepare to leave by the end of 2014 at the latest. However, successive attempts have frequently backfired.
"Ongoing quiet discussions are happening. Back channel contacts have been going on. Things have been gridlocked because of Mumbai but … despite his weaknesses Zardari has shown he is genuinely inclined towards peace with India," said Joshi.
The shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a 12th-century saint, at Ajmer has been a popular destination among Pakistani leaders. Zardari's late wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in December 2007, visited five times. Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, visited last year.
Chishti effectively founded a branch of the mystic and broadly tolerant Sufi tradition of Islamic practice. He is seen as a symbol of harmony between south Asia's often competing religions.