KĀR-SEVĀ, voluntary contribution of physical labour towards cleaning and construction operations at sacred tanks and temples, holds a special significance in the Sikh tradition. Sevā, altruistic service, was preached by the Gurūs as a means to God-realization . "One who renders selfless service attains to the Lord's presence," says the Scripture (GG, 286-87). Kār may be interpreted in two ways. In Sanskrit as well as in Persian the word means simply act, action, work, operation, labour, service, etc., so that kār-sevā may mean any physical act, labour or service altruistically performed. However, in Sikh usage the term is applied to free voluntary labour contributed to building, repairing or renovating projects, undertaken by the community. In another and more popular sense till recently, the word kār was taken as derived from the Arabic q'ar meaning "to go to the bottom, to make deep, bottom, depth (of well, etc.)." Kār-sevā is thus applied specifically to the work of dredging or removing by manual labour sedimentary mud and garbage, collected at the bottom of a sarovar, sacred pool or tank, over the years. Sikhs, male and female, old and young, high and low, consider it a privilege to participate in kār-sevā. Therefore, in order to give a chance to the maximum number, it a customary not to use mechanical contrivances but use simple digging implements and baskets during the operation. The inauguration of the work is marked by a solemn ceremony. Pañj Piāre or the Five Elect are chosen for their eminence in piety. They, after ardās, supplicatory prayer to God for assistance in successful completion of the task, offered in the presence of gathered volunteers, dig the first clods and carry them in baskets on their heads up to the banks of the sarovar amidst singing of the sacred hymns. The volunteers then take over and the whole tank hums with activity combined with hymn-singing or simple, sonorous repetition of "Sati Nām Vāhigurū" --- "God whose very name is the Truth." As the operations conclude, the sarovar is refilled with fresh water and a thanksgiving ardās is offered.
Sikh chronicles describe the kār-sevā operations at the Pool of Nectar, the sacred tank, Amritsar, which lent its name to the city, on several occasions. This sarovar was dug initially by Gurū Rām Dās (1534-81). Being unlined and rain-fed, it soon started getting shallow. Gurū Arjan (1563-1606) took up the first kār-sevā which involved not only deepening but also brick lining of its banks with steps leading down. He had the Harimandar constructed in the middle of it as also the causeway connecting the shrine to the bank. The project extending over several years was executed primarily with voluntary, free labour. With the shifting of the Gurū's seat to Kīratpur and Chakk Nānakī in the Śivālik foothills, no kār-sevā at Amritsar is recorded to have taken place for a century and more. In 1746, Lakhpat Rāi, dīwān, revenue minister to Yāhiyā Khān, governor of Lahore, started a severe campaign of persecution against the Sikhs in retaliation of the death of his brother, Jaspat Rāi, at their hands in an encounter. Besides inflicting heavy casualties upon the Sikhs in what is known as Chhoṭā Ghallūghārā, the minor holocaust, he destroyed their shrines and had the Pool of Nectar partly filled up. But the following year, Sikhs regained control of Amritsar and had the sarovar cleaned through kār-sevā. The sarovar was got filled up again in May 1757 by Jahān Khān, an army commander and deputy viceroy of the Punjab under Taimūr Shāh, the son of Ahmad Shāh Durrānī. Taimūr and Jahān Khān were, however, driven out of the Punjab in April 1758 by a combined force of Sikhs and Marāṭhās, and the Sikhs got the sarovar cleaned by two hundred odd Afghān prisoners of war. Sikh volunteers also assisted in the kār-sevā. Five years later, on the eve of Baisākhī of 1762, Ahmad Shāh Durrānī, not content with the crushing blow he had inflicted upon the Sikhs two months earlier during what is known in Sikh history as Vaḍḍā Ghallūgharā, the greater holocaust, suddenly fell upon Amritsar, where he blew up the Harimandar with gun powder and filled up the Pool of Nectar with debris and rubbish. Dal Khālsā, the fighting force of the Sikhs, under Jassā Siṅgh Āhlūvālīā retaliated with an attack on Sirhind in May 1762. Zain Khān, the faujdār, was defeated and purchased peace with Rs 50,000 as indemnity to the Sikhs. Following their advantage the Sikhs reoccupied Amritsar in October 1762. Durrānī's one attempt to eject them on Dīvālī day, 17 October, was frustrated and the Sikhs were left free to perform the kār-sevā at the sacred tank in peace. In January 1764, the Sikhs conquered Sirhind. The accursed town was put to systematic destruction and pillage, and it was decided to set apart a major part of the plunder for the reconstruction of the Harimandar and the embankment and circumambulatory terrace around the sarovar. The execution of the project was entrusted to Bhāī Des Rāj and was completed in 1776.
The next kār-sevā was carried out in 1842 under the supervision of Bhāī Gurmukh Siṅgh Giānī. Eighty-one years later, in 1923, the newly established Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee planned a kār-sevā. As a preparatory measure, an earthen embankment temporarily divided the sarovar into two parts. Water of one was transferred into the other so that the emptied half could be ready for digging and deepening. The actual operations were inaugurated with great fanfare on 17 June 1923.Pañj Piāre --- Sant Shām Siṅgh of Amritsar, Sant Gulāb Siṅgh of Gholīā, Jathedār Tejā Siṅgh of Chuhaṛkāṇā, Sodhī Prītam Siṅgh of Anandpur Sāhib and Sardār Mahitāb Siṅgh --- came to the Harimandar at the head of a large procession. Five gold shovels and five large silver bowls were placed at Har kī Pauṛī. After offering ardās, the Pañj Piāre each lifted a shovel and bowl, and digging some sedimentary clods from the emptied half of the sarovar carried them in the bowls up the embankment stairs to throw it beyond the terrace. Volunteers, assembled district-wise, took turns at sevā. Even Mahārājā Bhūpinder Siṅgh, ruler of Paṭiālā (1891-1938), and other Sikh chiefs participated in the sacred labour. The latest kār-sevā at Amritsar was in 1973. This time the Pañj Piāre included five eminent saints known for their dedication especially to the renovation of the holy Sikh shrines at different places. They were Sant Gurmukh Siṅgh, Sant Khaṛak Siṅgh, Sant Jīvan Siṅgh, Sant Sevā Siṅgh and Sant Mohindar Siṅgh. Dredging through kār-sevā of the sacred tank at Tarn Tāran, the largest of the Sikh sarovars, was carried out from 10 January 1931 to 31 May 1932. Building activities through kār-sevā go on continuously at different places throughout the country keeping the Sikh tradition of sevā alive and inculcating among the followers of the faith values such as equality, humility and dignity of manual labour.
Bhāī Kirpāl Siṅgh