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Recycling with the Nihang Singhs of Punjab


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Recycling with the Nihang Singhs of Punjab

A throw-away line completely opened my eyes to what was actually going on around me. "Nick, where's the bin?" I asked, as I wandered around the room looking for somewhere into which to deposit a plastic bag and its contents. "There isn't one," he nonchalantly replied, "and nor is there anywhere on the camp."

We were in Punjab in the lead up to the Sikh Tercentenary of 1999, just months before mobile phones moved in to herald the new millennium. Now each time we return it is harder to forget western civilisation and the 21st century. The cacophony of tacky ringtones doesn't blend so easily with the stillness of prayer or the beat of spiritual music.

Nick had actually been living and photographing at this camp for a while by the time I went to stay there with him from the small village where I was then living in at the other end of Punjab. I was already used to all the rural sanitary arrangements, and had even grown to love the sensuousness of having a bath with a bucket of freezing water in an open outdoor closet and all the other things which wake us up out of our western comfort zone. The lack of privacy, the lack of personal space, the lack of respect that what is mine is mine and not for general consumption, each had changed my outlook on life forever. Now though I was confronted with a different issue: where do I put my rubbish?

Harian Belan is a beautiful haven set in the rich lush greenery of Northern India. It is the home to a community of Nihang Singhs, spiritual warriors whose way of life has not changed from 300 years ago when they were brought together by Guru Gobind Singh as his army. It is a very spiritual place and the sound of people reading from the Sikh holy book, called the Siri Guru Grandth Sahib, echoed throughout enhanced by birdsong and the ubiquitous chirping of grasshoppers. The tinny loudspeakers and the jeeps the Nihangs travelled around in when they weren't on horseback were the only way of knowing we weren't back in the 17th century. The bag in my hand became a statement of modernity in deep conflict with the eternal balance of nature and man.

We had many hours to idle away and I began to observe how the camp worked and the community cooperated together. All food is cooked in camp in the communal kitchens. This feeds the members of the camp and any who come to visit or are just passing through. A deep seated part of the Sikh way of life is to feed people. Chapattis the size of dinner plates, pitted, bubbled and occasionally burnt, lentils and very spicy vegetables are cooked on fires which are constantly being stoked with the dried leaf waste from the fields. The leftover food (because nothing is ever reheated) is fed to their horses and the local dogs. The water is from the well. The ash from the fire is piled up just outside the eating area and used as washing up liquid to clean the stainless steel plates and cups. Sewage is turned into compost which is used on Harian Belan's extensive fields which grew all the food necessary to support the community. Any things bought from the market, such as spices, come in paper bags which are added to the kitchen fires. In the cold winter months we all huddled up around the fire which kept the kettle boiling all day. How warm those metal cups are when filled with Chai. I don't really like tea and so would be given buffalo milk straight from the udder instead which was just as warm. The buffalo were fed on all the vegetable peels. In all of this there was nowhere for plastic to go.

While we were there a Mela (fair) took place. No big deal, only 10,000 people were expected. In the days running up to it all our duties were enhanced. Everyone in the camp, including us, was given Seva, a selfless service, to perform. Nick spent 2 ½ hours each morning and night cross-legged on the floor making balls out of the chapatti dough. Before the Mela preparations, mine was to help in the kitchen, either by stirring the vegetables with the huge spoons in the cauldrons or by flipping the chapattis on the oven. Now it was to shell 60kg of peas a day for about 5 days. Do you have an idea how big a pile of peas can look when you're sitting cross-legged in front of it?. Those pea-pods were carefully checked for non-edible rubbish before being fed to the buffalo and I swear I could almost taste peas in the milk for a few days.

The Mela day was filled with performances by the skilful warrior showmen, services in the Gurdwara, and food for all. As the sun set and the last people began to leave the cleanup team collected barely a rubbish bag of unrecyclable stuff which was then ignominiously deposited down by the main road. Finally I managed secretly to slip in my own little contribution.

Guru Kaur © 2007

Guru Kaur is married to Nick Fleming. She spent a year living in Amritsar and Anandpur Sahib as a representative of Yogi Bhajan in the time leading up to the Sikh Tercentennary. She and Nick lived with the Nihangs during Nick's first trip there to photograph them.

Taken from http://www.sikhsangat.com/index.php?showtopic=39397

The first response to the article made me laugh!

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