From a culture of sharing we have become a culture driven by possession and profit. The century of self. This short film comes from the kitchens of the golden temple where every day around 100,000 people, regardless of colour, caste or religion, donate, prepare, consume and clean for nothing more than compassion. Are we really moving in the right direction?
This year the world will produce enough food to feed twice the world’s population, yet every day almost one billion people will sleep hungry.
The Langar or free kitchen was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. It is designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people of the world regardless of religion, caste, colour, 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 God is in all hearts.” (sggs 282)
For the first time in history, Guruji designed an institution in which all people would sit on the floor together, as equals, to eat the same simple food. It is here that all people high or low, rich or poor, male or female, all sit in the same pangat (literally “row” or “line”) to share and enjoy the food together.
Langar service in progress at Spain Forum 2004
The institution of Guru ka Langar has served the community in many ways. It has ensured the participation of women and children in a task of service for mankind. Women play an important role in the preparation of meals, and the children help in serving food to the pangat. Langar also teaches the etiquette of sitting and eating in a community situation, which has played a great part in upholding the virtue of sameness of all human beings; providing a welcome, secure and protected sanctuary.
Everyone is welcome to share the Langar; no one is turned away. The food is normally served twice a day, every day of the year. Each week a family or several families volunteer to provide and prepare the Langar. This is very generous, as there may be several hundred people to feed, and caterers are not allowed. All the preparation, the cooking and the washing-up is done by volunteers and or by voluntary helpers (Sewadars).
Besides the Langars attached to gurdwaras, there are improvised open-air Langars at the time of festivals and gurpurbs. Specially arranged Langars on such occasions are probably the most largely attended community meals anywhere in the world. There might be a hundred thousand people partaking of food at a single meal in one such langar. Wherever Sikhs are, they have established their Langars. In their prayers, the Sikhs seek from the Almighty the favour:
“Loh langar tapde rahin.”
“May the iron pots of Langar be ever warm (in service).”
Guru ka Langar (lit. ‘Gurus’ communal dining-hall) is a community kitchen run in the name of the Guru. Often referred to as the Guru’s Kitchen it is usually a small room attached to a gurdwara, but at larger gurdwaras, such as the Harmandir Sahib, it takes on the look of a military kitchen with tasks arranged so that teams of sewadars prepare tons of food (all meals are vegetarian) for thousands of the Gurus’ guests daily. Langar, is said to be a Persian word that translates as ‘an almshouse’, ‘an asylum for the poor and the destitute’, ‘a public kitchen once kept by a great man for his followers and dependants, holy persons and the needy.’ Some scholars trace the word langar to Sanskrit analgarh (cooking room). In Persian, the specific term langar has been in use in an identical sense. In addition to the word itself, the institution of langar is also traceable in the Persian tradition. Langars were a common feature of the Sufi centres in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Even today some dargahs, or shrines commemorating Sufi saints, run langars, like Khwaja Mu’in ud-Din Chishti’s at Ajmer.
The principle of Guru Ka Langar is so important that even when the ruler of India Emperor Akbar visited Guru Amar Das Ji, he too had to first sit in pangat lined up with commoners sharing simple foods cooked by Sikhs who months before may have been from any of India’s castes. Anyone had to take Langar before he was allowed to meet with the Guru. Hence the mighty Emperor who was usually served elaborate dishes with complicate sauces, all of which had to be first tasted to assure he was not poisoned sat amongst people formerly of all castes and religions, which outside of the Sikh Langer people of differing religions would not even drink water from those of another religions’ well. Or take food cooked by other of a differing religions hands. The Langar started by Guru Nanak was truely a revolutionary idea. Akbar was so impressed by the Langar and the service that it shared to people of any religion, that he offered a great jagir (a sizeable estate with several villages and the right to the products and produce produced by the tenants) as a contribution to the langar’ maintainance. As the Mahima Prakash records, the Emperor refused to step on the silks spread out for him by his servants when going to call on the Guru. He turned aside the lining with his own hands and walked to the Guru’s presence barefoot. The Guru would not accept the Emperor’s offer of the jagir, so Akbar offered it as a wedding present for the Guru’s daughter. It is believed that the gifted land, is today, the city of Amritsar.
When President Nasser of Egypt visited the Golden Temple he was so touched to see so many Kashmiri Muslims, Hindu’s, Christians and Sikhs sitting together to eat in the Langar that his party left all the money they carried with them as a contribution to it’s running.
Bhai Desa Singh in his Rehitnama says, “A Sikh who is ‘well to do’ must look to the needs of his poor neighbours. Whenever he meets a traveller or a pilgrim from a foreign country, he must serve him devotedly.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh made grants of jagirs to gurdwaras for the maintenance of langars. Similar endowments were created by other Sikh rulers as well. Today, practically every gurdwara has a langar supported by the community in general. In smaller gurdwaras cooked food received from different households may comprise the langar. In any case, no pilgrim or visitor will miss food at meal time in a gurdwara. Sharing a common meal sitting in a pangat is for a Sikh is an act of piety. So is his participation in cooking or serving food in the langar and in cleaning the used dishes. The Sikh ideal of charity is essentially social in conception. A Sikh is under a religious obligation to contribute one-tenth of his earnings (daswand) for the welfare of the community. He must also contribute the service of his hands whenever he can, service rendered in a langar being the most meritorious
Guru Nanak and his successors attached a great deal of importance to langar and it became, in their hands, a potent means of social reform. The former gave it the central place in the dharamsala he established at Kartarpur at the end of his preaching tours. Guru Nanak, as did Guru Angad, toiled in the fields to provide for himself and for his family and to contribute his share to the common langar.
He had such of his disciples as could afford to set up dharamsalas and langars. Among them were ‘Sajjan Thag, then lost to godly ways, and a wealthy nobleman, Malik Bhago, both of whom had converted to his message. Bhumia, formerly a dacoit, was asked by Guru Nanak to turn his kitchen into a langar in the name of God. A condition was laid upon Raja Shivnabh of Sangladip (Sri Lanka) that he open a langar before he could see him (Guru Nanak). The Raja, it is said, happily complied.
Guru Angad, Nanak II, further extended the scope of the institution. He helped with cooking and serving in the Langar at Khadoor Sahib. His wife, Mata Khivi, looked after the pilgrims and visitors with the utmost attention. Such was her dedication to work in the langar that it came to be known after her name as Mata Khivi ji ka Langar. Mata Khivi has the distinction of being mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib by the bard Balvand who pays homage to her in his verses, in the SGGS. To quote the stanza:
The Var by Satta and Balvand also applauds Guru Amar Das’s langar wherein “ghee and flour abounded.” In spite of rich variety of food served in his langar, Guru Amar Das ate a simple meal earned by the labour of his own hands. “What was received from the disciples was consumed the same day and nothing was saved for the morrow.” Contributing towards the Guru ka Langar became an established custom for the Sikhs. Partaking of food in Guru ka Langar was made a condition for disciples and visitors before they could see the Guru. Guru Amar Das’s injunction was: “pahile pangat pachhe sangat”—first comes eating together, then meeting together.” Langar thus gave practical expression to the notion of equality.
At Goindwal, during the time of Guru Amar Das Ji a rule was instituted that anyone who wanted to have a meeting with the Guru (receive his Darshan) would have to eat food from the Langar. Even when the Emperor of India, Akbar came to see Guru Amar Das, he sat in pangat (where Langar is served) before meeting the Guru. From that time forward, at Goindwal, Langar was served 24 hours a day.
Bhai Jetha, who came into spiritual succession as Guru Ram Das, served food in Guru Amar Das’s langar, brought firewood from the forest and drew water from the well. By such deeds of devoted service, he gained enlightenment and became worthy of the confidence of Guru Amar Das. Langar served to train the disciples in seva and to overcome class distinctions.
The institution of langar had become an integral part of the Sikh movement by now and, with the increase in its numbers, it gained further popularity and strength. With the development under Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan of Amritsar as the central seat of the Sikh faith, the capacity of the local Guru ka Langar increased manifold. Sikhs came from far-off places to see their Guru and to lend a hand with the construction work. They were all served food in Guru ka Langar.
Bhai Manjh, was was attracted to Sikhism from a Muslim sect, engaged himself in serving the Guru’s langar by fetching fuel wood from the nearby jungle. Once, due to inclement weather, he fell into a well whilst carrying wood on his head. On hearing this, the Guru Arjan Dev rushed to the well with necessary equipment. When the ropes were lowered, Bhai Manjh requested the Guru to draw out the fuel wood first, as he considered dry wood more essential than himself. It was done, and when Bhai Manjh was drawn out, the Guru embraced him in his wet clothes blessing him, “Manjh is the Guru’s beloved. Whosoever keeps his company shall be redeemed.”
Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur travelled extensively in north and northeast India. This led to the establishment of many new sangats. Each sangat meant an additional langar. In the reign of Guru Gobind Singh, the institution of langar acquired further significance. At Anandpur, the new seat of Sikhism, a number of langars were in existence, each under the supervision of a devoted and pious Sikh. Food was available in these langars day and night.