Sikh Langar

Food fights social hierachy

With others similarly contorted in my row, I sit cross-legged on a slender rug – our dining chair – whose length spans the entire room, one of several parallel to each other in the basement of this Montreal Gurdwara. Facing us below are exceptionally wide plates filled with fresh chapa and several crumbly blocks of multi-hued burfis befriending basmati rice, samosas, and pakoras. Volunteering grandfathers and granddaughters hover over me every few minutes with gallons-deep pots of the rice pudding and curries just prepared in the adjacent kitchen by the laity – with ingredients purchased with their voluntary contributions – enquiring if I want more. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, meals are free, my company tells me.
The Langar of the Gurdwara – the free community kitchen at the Sikh place of worship – is a tradition established by Guru Nanak, the faith’s founding father. The existence of a Langar-less Gurdwara is as unlikely as that of a pork butcher in Saudi Arabia. Established in the 15th century during an epoch deeply pervaded and segregated by the socioeconomic apartheid sanctioned by India’s dominant Hindu caste system, Sikhism repudiated the nation’s hierarchical status quo by centralizing the tenet of egalitarianism. The Langar would operate as the paragon of Sikhism’s commitment to human sameness and realizing the virtues of a communal synergy.
In conceptualizing the Langar, Guru Nanak envisioned a sanctuary where solidarity and commonality in the kitchen and equal levelling and grounding – very literally – when dining, would foster spiritual and material refuge from the caste-system-sponsored social atomism and stratification, to which Indians had become so inured.
The Langar’s primary aim is not to feed the less fortunate, although it certainly satisfies this ancillary goal, but to evoke the spirit of equality and fraternity by giving no heed to the caste, class, colour, gender, or faith of those serving or being served. When Emperor Akhbar visited the Langar, he consumed the same dishes while seated on the same level and in the same fashion as Shudras – low-caste Hindus – who outside the confines of the temple’s bulwark against inequality, would not even have been permitted to eat on the same precincts as Brahmin elites.
Within the Langar of the Golden Temple – the Mecca or Vatican of Sikhism – reverberates the cacophony of spiritual solidarity: several thousand sundry volunteers – Hindus, Sikhs, agnostics – partaking in the dough tossing, sweeping, and scooping in order to serve an average 80,000 free weekday meals to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, fundamentalist atheists, the poor of the Punjab, the affluent of America, et cetera.
While many of the temple’s Hindu volunteers are made to snub the task of cleaning outside of the golden fortress due to their caste status, within it they elect to wipe tiles to a shimmer, embodying the contagiousness and resilience of community spirit when it is awash with the organic devotion of the masses to inclusiveness.
Upon entering this consummate haven of equality, one is purified of considerations of dissimilarity as they inhale the oxygen of an unbounded loyalty to the act of providing nourishment to all. Mealtime, as the Langar displays, ought to and can be a hearth of harmony that defies hierarchy.