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Lunch at the Langar: Exploring a Free Kitchen in Delhi
Sarah Rich, 28 Feb 07


Free-for-all is a term generally used to describe chaos. And chaos is a word one could use to describe much of Delhi. But at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib kitchen, a Sikh temple which serves meals to around 10,000 people every single day, there's not a trace of chaos. And the food is free. For all.

This week, Alex and I are at the Doors of Perception conference in India, where the theme is "Food and Juice." It's an exploration of food systems worldwide, and the energy required to make them go. On the first full day of the conference, the fifty-odd attendees split into small groups to go exploring the city of Delhi through its food culture. A number of groups focused on the prolific street vendor network, several looked at Delhi's water, and my group of nine went to Gurdwara Bangla Sahib to see how they achieve the daunting task of feeding thousands of people in single a day. As Debra Solomon told us when introducing the excursion the previous evening: "They do the most exquisite dishwashing ritual you'll ever see." But actually, the Sikh guide who escorted us through the temple grounds told us in no uncertain terms that the kitchen activities are absolutely without ritual. "Cooking food is cooking food," he said, "No ritual. Just cooking." But if it can't be called a ritual, it can surely be called a dance -- a rhythmic, continuous choreography with mounds of dough, cauldrons of lentils, dozens of hands, and an endless stream of hungry visitors.


Every Sikh temple throughout the world has a Langar (Punjabi for "free kitchen"). This is not a soup kitchen. It's not exclusively for the poor, nor exclusively for the Sikh community. Volunteering in the cooking, serving and cleaning process is a form of active spiritual practice for devotees, but the service they provide asks no religious affiliation of its recipients. Our guide's chorus was, "Man, woman, color, caste, community," meaning you will be fed here regardless of how you fit into any of those classifications. This spirit of inclusion and equality is reinforced by the kitchen's adherence to vegetarianism, not because Sikhs are vegetarian, but because others who visit may be, and by serving no meat, they exclude nobody.


The Langar receives funding from wealthier members of the community and through small donations at the temple. Every day they serve chapati and lentil dal, supplemented with vegetables when donations come in from local farmers. On our visit there were ruby-colored carrots -- the short, knobby type we see only at a farmer's market and never at a grocery -- and huge bunches of leafy dark greens, clearly fresh from the ground.


The preparations take place in an open air building with stone floors which has been arranged with several preparation stations. In one area, men and women sit together around a huge rectangular platform covered in dough. They roll balls, flatten them into circles, and pile them up to pass over to the griddle built into the floor, where only men sit around with long flippers, turning the white slabs of dough over and over until they acquire dark brown speckles, at which point they flick them off the heat and onto a cloth.


A little boy stacks them up, plops them into a woven basket, and carries them to a metal pot around four or five feet in diameter and nearly taller than him. Everything is magnified ten-fold. One member of our group called the place "psychadelic."


To stir the vegetables in the wok they use a shovel -- the kind you'd used to dig a hole or shovel snow; the ladle for the lentil pot probably has a one-quart capacity; and the wash basins look more like bathing tubs at an ancient bathhouse than dish sinks, with high cement walls around a long, shallow pool. A row of volunteers sits on the ground near the washing area cleaning off metal plates by hand and passing them to the basins for rinsing. Stacked plates pile up along one side, ready for the next seating of eaters.


We were invited to join the next round for lunch, so we took seats on the ground on a long row of mats as people filtered in and filled in around us. There were probably 500-600 people present, all assembled within less than five minutes. Down the rows came several volunteers with stacks of clean plates. Next came men with metal pails of dal, ladling a helping onto each plate.


Finally a parade of baskets piled with chapati traveled past open hands. Everybody waited patiently for the plates to fill, and then seemingly by unspoken consensus, people made a quick gesture of blessing and began to eat.


The plates were not overflowing and the food was not colorful, but it was delicious, hot, salty, spicy and fresh; and the parade of dal and chapati continued until everyone had had their fill. More volunteers collected used plates from satiated diners and in a short time, the crowd began to disperse. There was no lingering over this meal; another round would soon be under way.


We returned along the rear of the temple, where people lined up for the last bite of the visit: a warm, cookie dough-like substance made of flour, butter and sugar which is handed out in little lumps on banana leaf dishes, and eaten as a blessing. After receiving the sweet, people headed down to huge pool where they splashed hands and face and took a drink of what is considered holy water. The pool is filled with carp, which someone told us keeps the water clean (needless to say, the Westerners in our group didn't partake in this final phase).


The Gurwara Bangla Sahib langara has been feeding Delhi residents since 1935. Day in and day out a factory of human hands churns out what one member of our group observed as a day's peace of mind for hungry members of the community. "If you get your day's meal," he said, "you can relax. You can survive." It's not a matter of survival for everyone who eats there -- in fact, most people with whom we shared lunch looked happy and healthy, and had probably come as members of the spiritual community. But it's there for anyone who needs it, and in a city of 13 million (and rapidly growing), an open, organized, clean, reliable, and free food source couldn't be more valuable. It's a great testament to the stability of a well-organized grassroots effort. While countless hours pass in board rooms and over policy debates to establish government-subsidized and NGO programs for feeding the hungry, a crew of volunteers at Gurwara Bangla Sahib feeds thousands upon thousands of their neighbors with no intervention, no fuss, and no strings attached.

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This is a traditional version of Food Not Bombs, this model is practiced by anarchists around the world.

Posted by: Robin Ronne on 1 Mar 07

Langar (Punjabi: ਲੰਗਰ) is the term used in the Sikh religion for the free, vegetarian-only food served in a Gurdwara and eaten by everyone sitting as equals. The Sikh Langar or free kitchen was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. It is designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people of the world regardless of religion, caste, color, creed, age, gender or social status. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of Langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind. "..the Light of one Universal God is in all hearts." Click the following for more info:

Posted by: JangPartap Singh on 1 Mar 07

There was a wonderful piece on these kitchens on the BBC radio 4 food programme a few months back. They were visiting a Sikh community in England but it was being explained that everyone was welcome and everyone was equal etc.

This is an excellent radio programme and i really remember this piece.

Hope Doors is interesting.

Mark (a Londoner in San Francisco for the week).

Posted by: mark Simpkins on 1 Mar 07

Sikh Langar is based on Sikh religious principals of Seva (Voluntary Service to Community) and Wand Ke Chakna (Share on'e food around). The principal dictums of Sikh living are "To earn one's living by honest labour"; "Remember Almighty Lord or Supreme Being - Akal Purukh" all the time and "share with others what you can - affortd to give". Thus for Sikhs to serve in Langar for cooking, cleaning, distributing or donating, are fulfilment of their religious obligation. Sikhs believe in existance of " One Supreme Being" for the whole universe and also that all humans are chidren of the same One Supreme Being, which is formless, not usbject to life and death, Omnipresent. Thus serving all humans without any inhibition on account of cast,colour, religious or finacncial status, is compliance of Sikh religious code.

Many large Sikh Gurdwaras around the World also have free accomodation for travelers. Tobacco, alcohal, drugs are prohibited inside Sikh religious premises and Sikhs are not allowed to partake any of these.

Manmohan Singh
Sydney - Australia

Posted by: Manmohan Singg on 1 Mar 07

interesting to see how they'd conduct business during a respiratory disease pandemic - more like meals-on-wheels, with loud music allowing individuals to be in a community? same for other spiritual congregations all around the world ...

Posted by: lugon on 2 Mar 07

Excellent article and description of the uniqeness of the Langar.

It is an institution of great value. The international communities can learn from the principles of this religion. Leaving aside everything else of Sikhism, if they choose to adopt the practice of Langar alone, nobody will go hungry, provided it is run in the way Sikhs run it. This conviction comes from the scriptures where, 'when one is serves selflessly His creation, the creator's invisible support awakens in your favor'.

One should be proud of the ones Sikhs are themselves rightly proud of --- their originator Guru Nanak and the successive nine Gurus. And many more who worked hard over the centuries to retain the values.

Bhupinder Singh

Posted by: Bhupinder SIngh on 2 Mar 07

Very nice piece.

If I ever won (several) million bucks, I'd love to set up something like this: Freshly made bread, soup, and a piece of fruit to all comers.

Maybe fund a UU church to run it. Nice way to train community college students studying culinary arts, and hospitality majors.

Make the venue nice enough that working stiffs and thrifty professionals might eat there and drop off a fiver.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 2 Mar 07

This is the most beautiful and selfless act of kindness: sharing. Beautiful! Sharing time, food,and company to all. If we practice sharing our belongins and our food, maybe we can develop this act of selflessness here in America.

Posted by: Jessica on 3 Mar 07

I loved the article and I just wanted to add why "rituals" is a word best ommitted to describe this experience.

Rituals are active or passive traditions that can be rational/irrational in nature. Sikhism is based on acting on principle to avoid irrational nature (i.e. Do things that make sense, rather than follow stagnant herseay based on "bad science")

For me, this is why "Sikh Temple" (temple is worship of an empty idol) rather Gurdwara (active worship by reading and listening to Gurbani). It follows the same spirit of ritual.

Posted by: Amar on 3 Mar 07

Sikhs have always done a great job with voluntary community service. On the bus route from Delhi to Chandigarh during the hot summer months you will find volunteers who come on board to provide travelers with sugar water or Rooh Afza (a sweetened refreshing drink). I don't know if this practice still continues (the last time I did this was over 10 years ago).

I have also attended a couple of weddings over the years that featured langars that anyone could attend.

Posted by: Deepak on 3 Mar 07

Regarding Sikhs,there are many unique things,which no other community,religious or social,have adapted.Unshorn hair,unshorn beard, always covering their head with a cloth called Pagri (Turban),Ban of using Tobacoo in any style,wearing of five K's always i.e. 1) Kacch(short Pyjamma,Kanga ( a small wooden comb),Kirpan ( a small sword),Kesh (Unshorn Hair) and Kadha( an iron bangle) in right hand.Donating @10% of Income to the deprived and poor irrespective of caste,creed and religion.

Posted by: Jaswinfer Singh Rekhi on 4 Mar 07

When my husband, a hindu south Indian, first went to UK, he was a student living on a tight budget in Eastham, a not very nice part of London. He was starved for Indian food and company. He found both at two places. The Sikh Gurdwara with its Langar and the Mahalakshmi temple with its prasad. Any sikh he meets, he mentions his langar days, being served punjabi food with lots of affection by the local sikhs. We will never forget those who were there for us in time of need.

Posted by: Sudha on 5 Mar 07

This is not uncommon in Pakistan and not restricted to religion nor community. Its been going on for centuries.

Posted by: Billa on 5 Mar 07

Nice post! This is an example of pure seva.

Posted by: Girish on 5 Mar 07

One great experience of a Langar I had was at Hemkunth sahib. This is a pilgrimmage spot for Sikhs, set at 15000 ft. up in the Himalayas - you have to trek for 19 Km. to get there and the last 6 km are killers. But when you finally arrive, the cool breeze blows in your face, the lake is crystal clear water, the mountains surrounding you are snowcapped, and there's a Gurudwara and a Langar which serves all comers piping hot, wholesome food. Not an experience you'll forget soon.

Posted by: Sudarshan on 5 Mar 07

Responding to Stefan Jones above, you won't need several million bucks to set this up locally to where you live - just a lot of good will and initiative, team work etc - as said before, anarchists do this in the western world, as well as most community food events where food is donated and prepared by volunteers. I personally think it's a tremendous idea to set up this kind of thing - all it needs is "waste" or unwanted food produce from various places such as expensive restaurants and distributors with a conscience - which in the UK could be city allotments where people grow food with usually a lot of extras... The key thing is that people in communities in the western world who are good at cooking might not get a chance to show and share those skills and recipes with others, and this would give so much space for that kind of interchange...

Posted by: Ale on 6 Mar 07

Bless these wonderful people who do 'God's work'..

Posted by: Saty on 6 Mar 07

Very cool post -- I'm an American, getting married to a wonderful Punjabi woman, and have been to a few different Gurdwaras. I love the "Langar" at the end of the services, and the essay/photos here captured the experience.

Posted by: David on 6 Mar 07

My family has been involved in a local church soup kitchen here in the US, and based on my observations of volunteers there, I think there's one huge difference that makes the Langar model much more effective: while some middle-class westerners are able to approach such volunteering with a true lack of selfishness, many bring too much ego and pride to their community service.

Someone who volunteers because it makes them feel (and appear) good and noble -- rather than out of a sense of piety or true selflessness -- will always consider them self to be just a little bit "better" than the ones they serve. This prevents them from feeling any sense of community with those who come to eat, and attaches a stigma to the act of accepting such charity.

Posted by: Lennon on 6 Mar 07

That is so cool!

How nice to read something uplifting that's going on.

Posted by: Sally Parrott Ashbrook on 6 Mar 07

Thanks for this great post. It captures the spirit of Langar perfectly. Both the eating and the serving offer delight in it's purest form.

Posted by: GT on 6 Mar 07

Hi Sarah

The scale of the Langar, its being free of cost, no strings attached has always fascinated me. I am a Sikh and been to thousands of langars. You will find them in all major Gurudwaras spread across India.

But there is one more thing which is truly remarkable about Langar. In a caste conscious and class conscious society which is India, it is truly remarkable that people from all castes, all religions, rich, poor sit together and eat and there are no priveleges or preferences accorded.

Posted by: Harmanpreet Singh on 7 Mar 07

I'm spoiled, but I would go nuts working at the level of the floor for more than a few minutes.

Posted by: Robert Cockerham on 7 Mar 07

This is such an amazing idea, and it's been around for so long. I only wish more of the western world would accept and in turn participate in this practice.

This has truly inspired me!

Posted by: Courtney B. on 8 Mar 07

Beautiful writeup.
It's a well managed stuff and everyone is requested to contribute for some time in their life.

The temple complex is also awesome ... called the golden temple. The temple is gold plated and grand. Chk some pictures here


Posted by: Rajesh S on 8 Mar 07

Thank you for this piece.

The pictures, the story - it all captured my religion and my culture so well. I hope it helps to open people's eyes and educate them about a group of people who they may have had no idea about.

Again, thank you - cheers! :)

Posted by: Sampuran on 9 Mar 07

Wonderful and inspiring to learn about this! I am one of those people, as Sampuran just mentioned, who had never heard of this religion or group of people before. Very very inspiring!!

Posted by: firefightress on 9 Mar 07

Very nice post... Sikhism is a religion that I have long appreciated for its tenets and Sikhs for their hard work.

I have never been to a Langar though I have lived in India most of my life.. will need to visit one soon..

Posted by: Vijay on 9 Mar 07

It is a well known fact of Sikh history that in 1567 A.D., Akbar, the Emperor of India, who had great regard for the sages and saints, was passing through Goindwal on his way to Lahore.

He showed an interest to meet Guru Amar Das ji and was informed that no one, no matter how high or low could gain an audience with the Guru without first partaking food in the langar.

To Akbar’s magnitude, he welcomed the idea and sat in a row where all men, irrespective of caste or religion sat one on level and partook of the food in the langar and the more he had it, the more he relished it.

Profoundly impressed by the sanctity and simplicity of the concept, Akbar during his interface with the Guru, expressed how moved he was and humbly wanted to gift the Guru the revenue collected from 22 villages to help support the langar.

Guru Amar Das Ji respectfully declined saying that the expenses of the langar were met by the daily offerings and the “daswand? (rendering of one tenth of the income for religious purposes) of the devout.

The Guru said," I have obtained lands and rent- free tenures from THE CREATOR. Whatever comes daily is spent daily, and for the morrow my trust is in God."

But the Emperor persisted that he humbly wanted to make this offering, so he bestowed the tract of land of the 22 villages to Guru ji’s daughter, Bibi Bhani Ji.

This was the estate where Guru Ram Das Ji built the city of Ramdaspur which is now called Amritsar where the GOLDEN TEMPLE is situated.

Posted by: Gurinder S. Rance on 9 Mar 07

Sarah Rich, i really enjoyed reading your article, its very well written with proper pictures, thanks.
Gurinder S Rance thanks for that great saakhi/story.

Posted by: Inderpreet Singh on 10 Mar 07

Hi Sarah
Really, your article is inspiring. I lived all my life in Buenos Aires and had never heard before about Langar, and now I would like to learn more about India and about this practice that you described so well.
May be sometime, I will go there!!!!

Posted by: hebe raimondo on 15 Mar 07

Hi Sarah ,

Its a very nice article well written and unbiased . tks

Posted by: harkiran singh on 20 Mar 07



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