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‘Langar at the Diag’: Students wrap up India experience serving free food

September 16, 2014
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Sarah Marshall making rotis at the Golden Temple. Image by Teresa Singh.

Sarah Marshall making rotis at the Golden Temple. Image by Teresa Singh.

ANN ARBOR—They spent part of their summer learning how to pull off a logistical miracle, feeding 60,000 people every day with a staff of volunteers at the Golden Temple—one of India’s biggest shrines.

Now, the University of Michigan students are back in Ann Arbor, and they want to share what they learned in India by cooking a massive meal and giving away the food from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 19 on U-M’s campus. They’re calling it “Langar at the Diag.”

“Langar” literally means “anchor” and refers to the meal served at the end of public worship. It’s a centuries-old tradition in the Sikh religion that emphasizes social and economic equality as people share vegetarian food together.

“American society needs spaces where rich and poor, people of all races and beliefs can come to share a common space. This university langar can provide that medium,” said Jasprit Singh, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science who led the students’ summer trip to India.

The group will be cooking chickpeas, chutney and salad in shifts with help from the  community at Gurudwara Sahib, a Sikh temple in Plymouth, Mich. The food will be packaged by hand into a tortilla wrap and served on the Diag all day on Sept. 19. The group hopes to serve about 10,000 wraps. Any leftovers will be donated to a shelter.

While at the Golden Temple in June, the 13 U-M undergraduate students got up early every morning to do “seva,” or work. They chopped and cooked vegetables, washed lentils, made bread, cleaned dishes and learned how sustainable nourishment at the Golden Temple has worked for more than 600 years.

Their experience attracted media attention in India, with coverage by The Times of India.

Jessica Eller talking and making new friends at the Golden Temple. Image by Teresa Singh.

Jessica Eller talking and making new friends at the Golden Temple. Image by Teresa Singh.

The India trip was part of the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates program at U-M. Michael Jordan, director of Center for Global and Intercultural Study (CGIS), said that the Golden Temple program is a model of what GIEU does.

“By contributing their own time and having learned from their experience, the group is now bringing that tradition back to U-M,” he said.

Jessica Eller, a junior at the Ford School of Public Policy, was part of the group.

“This trip was about humility and inspiration,” she said, adding that it has widened her perspective about who’s a volunteer and who is a recipient.

“The person sitting next to me during the meal could be a millionaire from London one day and a beggar girl the next day. Everyone received the same service,” she said.

Along with handing out vegetarian chickpea wraps, the students will be on the Diag ready to talk about their experiences at the temple.

Sarah Marshall, a junior studying environment and international studies, said she will discuss the love and compassion she received at the temple. She chose to make rotis (Indian bread) as her seva and soon formed a community with the women there.

“I didn’t speak the language, but I could see their eyes light up every morning when I came,” she said. “It was a comfort to see familiar faces every morning.”

Radha Patel, a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, said the experience really opened her eyes to what can be achieved by volunteer work.

“Community is very important in the Indian culture,” she said.

Singh, the engineering professor, grew up in India and has been visiting the Golden Temple since he was a child. But he said he could not grasp the dedication of the volunteers who come together everyday to cook and serve a meal at the temple.

“The students were surprised and moved by the enormity of the work done and the stress-free way how it gets done,” he said.

Along with hosting this event at the Diag, Singh has developed a best-practices handbook that he wants to share with the local communities in Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. He also has received interest from several places, including Amsterdam, to host Langar and talk about volunteer work to bring a community together.

“There is a pleasure in creating an event that breaks the barriers we often find around us,” Singh said.

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