This blog is third in a five-part series on exploring India. Former National Geographic staffer and guest blogger Anna Switzer shares her adventures with us from the field. Follow along with her as she journeys around and acclimates to new people and customs through her five senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling.
In the Punjabi language, the word for service is “seva.” The Golden Temple in Amritsar, which is the spiritual home of the Sikhs, has seva as a foundation. At all hours of the day, people are working there. They give their time to the larger purpose of keeping the temple clean and preparing food for the many visitors who spend time there. The temple itself is kept in immaculate condition; tens of thousands of people are fed a hot and nutritious meal every day, all through the efforts of many seva doers. People care so much about this place and feel honored to do seva. They travel from other parts of India and stay for days to be a part of it.
On my second visit to the temple, we arrived at 1:30 a.m. to participate in seva. At the temple, there are buckets of every shape and size to carry water for cleaning or tea for drinking. When not in use these buckets and pots are stacked neatly and become part of the amazing scene. We visited the kitchen where the lentils are cooked. The four large steaming pots—each the size of a hot tub—held different combinations of garlic, onions, clarified butter, spices and lentils. People use a metal paddle to stir these pots. These paddles are even longer than what I use for canoeing! It was amazing to watch and smell this cooking in progress.
Eventually, we wound our way to the area where volunteers sit to prepare the vegetables for the next batch of cooking. Gigantic piles of carrots, garlic and onions were waiting for us. A few people had already begun the work, and we sat down with them forming a circle on the ground around the garlic. By watching the other volunteers we could see what we needed to do; break open the bulb into the separate cloves, peel each clove and place the clean cloves into a bowl. I got right to work.
Over the two hours or so that I sat peeling garlic, several things happened. Externally, people joined the circle. People left the circle. People shifted their sitting position. All the while, peeled garlic found its way into the bowls and the center pile grew smaller. Internally, I experienced much less activity. In fact, it was the most peaceful I had felt since my travels to India began the previous week. All of the hectic planes, taxi rides, tickets, passports, jet-lag and navigation through foreign territory dropped away from my consciousness. The chatter in my mind was gone. There was only peeling garlic, one clove at a time. My finger tips got sticky, then stickier and it felt great!
In addition to my sticky fingers, I also gained a sense of satisfaction and belonging. It washed over and through me within minutes of beginning the work. I like to work with my hands, and it felt great to use them for a simple and direct purpose. And, even though my hands looked completely different from everyone else’s in the circle (as a non-Indian), it didn’t seem to matter. We sat together as women and men of different ages, levels of wealth and backgrounds. Without knowing each other’s stories, we became a group. Sometimes we worked together silently. Sometimes, there were a few pleasant exchanges of greeting and basic questions. My understanding of the Punjabi language is rudimentary, so my conversations were all quite short. It didn’t seem to matter. The important thing was being present to the seva, and the seva being a present to me in return. After this experience, I came back to the Golden Temple for many more and different experiences of seva—during all of which, I got to work with my hands.
Written by Anna Switzer