The train from New Delhi to Amritsar clacked along the Indian countryside. From my second-class seat, I watched the bright saris of women in the gold-hued fields. The sunrise illuminated their silhouettes as the women tended the land, boiled water on makeshift stoves in their shanty houses, and bathed babies in buckets of mud-colored water.
I was served Lipton tea in a metal cup, and strangely enough, it was delicious. With repeated good cups of Lipton in India, I became convinced that they send their dregs to us in America, keeping the good tea for the tea-drinking nations.
Upon arrival in Amritsar, I took a rickshaw straight to the Golden Temple so as not to waste any time in my mission to learn how to make chai from the celebrated Sikh temple chai wallas. En route, I died a thousand times dodging elephants, mules, carts of sacked kilos of tea, and beggars that dove toward our screaming red metal box – a lawn mower engine wailing at high decibel and me rolling from side to side on the hot vinyl seat, laughing uncontrollably.
The square around the temple was rife with tea stalls. I looked from side to side and counted at least 12. My brain stretched to absorb this fact, that there was just so much chai. It was like the coffeehouses of Seattle, so many on each city block, but none hurting for business. It turns out each tea stall housed its own subtly refined chai recipe, each claiming to be India’s finest.
After removing my shoes and entering the clean serenity of the temple, I was overcome with reverence. Men quietly bathed in the black, mysterious waters around the shimmering temple. The temple itself stood stately, tall, and grand with its 22-carat filigree architecture, hand-pounded finery, jutting turrets, and noble, golden scenes of great leaders on proud horses.
I made my way to the kitchen entrance in the far corner of the temple grounds and asked the white-robed, bearded devotees if I could help make chai the next morning at 4:00 AM. It was customary to serve chai after the ritual of bringing the Guru (the sacred Sikh texts) to the center of the temple for the daily readings. A tall, stately (American!) man turned from his task of washing the massive stainless-steel Dahl bowls and said it would be wonderful to have my help.
I said, “I am hoping to learn how to make the best chai in India. Would you say that you make the best chai in India?”
He was thoughtful, smiled big, and answered patiently, ignoring my obvious naïveté. “At 4:00 in the morning, it certainly tastes like the best chai in the world.”
The next day, bleary eyed and covered in a spreading, long-sleeved kurta, several scarves, and a headpiece that was an embarrassing attempt at a turban, I made my way back to the temple. In the dark, the city was quiet. I could make out the walls of make-shift shanty homes; my heart hurt in the presence of this poverty. I began to cry and found myself crying much of the day.
At the temple, I walked silently through the corridors, witnessing a tree with branches laden in glowing white almost-paper-like birds singing in an intoxicating unity, women cleaning the marble floors with fresh milk, a group of children in meditative prayer, and the Ragi musicians singing mesmerizing tunes while ensconced in glass displays.
The kitchen was bustling with activity. The followers were lining up outside for their sacred meal of blessed Prasad. I offered my hands and found myself swept into the activity. Pouring spices into boiling milk. Scooping tea leaves into the massive teapots that steamed and spit on large open-air flames. Pouring them together with sugar into a smaller pot for serving. Cardamom, fennel, ginger, black tea, raw sticky sugar, thick unpasteurized milk. The chemical compounds of spice oils, thick milk fat, and sugar boiling into a sweet liquor of rich, tongue-tingling flavor. Melding love and devotion with spices and tea transformed the simple act of brewing into a sacred act of soulful Dhamma – selfless service.
I poured cup after cup after cup. The devotees lined up and the line seemed never to shorten. The precious prayers rang from the Ragi’s melodic voices and the tea kept being poured, as if from another realm. It never ran out; we served thousands of cups of tea that morning. The women and children brought their own cups, sat in the rain, and sipped the steaming and nurturing milky tea. I watched so many solemn, destitute people come to life, as if the lights of the Spiritual Mecca we visited were a flame that was struck while they received the sacraments of prayer and sipped the golden fluid of the devoted Sikh volunteers.
I was just a follower – a quietly observing bystander in a profound scene of otherworldly devotion. After my small token of servitude, I had a cathartic experience that tea was not simply about the recipe, but more so the spirit by which it was made and served. Chai then became less about the perfect blend, and more about the nurturing love I could share with any who would drink my own offering of it. I bowed at the top of the temple and looked out over the waters. My heart felt effervescent, and the faint scent of pungent chai spices emanated from my mendhi-covered fingertips as I bent over them to pray.