As a 10-year-old, I was clueless about how to accept the roti at a langar . The bhai ji at our neighbourhood gurudwara in Chandigarh had just gestured I keep the plate down, when my aunt told me, “When you open your palms to accept the parshad at a langar , you open yourself to the blessings of the Guru.” You accept the roti in your bare hands, both palms cupped together; for food at a langar is parshad that hands you down a deeper philosophy, literally.
The tradition of langar connects fellow humans, regardless of their social status. People gather and contribute in the large-scale cooking, cleaning and feeding of people and sit down to eat in the pangat (line). The large community kitchens are maintained by the local gurudwara committees, and everyone from the locality contributes in their own way. The essence of community service has been kept malleable, so that everyone comes into the ambit, and that becomes a highly successful model of connecting people through a palpable sense of spirituality. For instance, the rich and the poor might dine side by side, and then proceed to wash utensils as well. There are no instructions or rules to follow, no one is bound to contribute, and yet there is a continuous stream of people who pour in to work in a langar , as if it were a well-oiled system.
It’s in the foundation
The system is actually Guru Nanak’s teachings that the Sikh community follows. Kirat karo, naam jappo te vand chhako (Work diligently, pray earnestly and share your food), these teachings of Guru Nanak are considered the three pillars of the religion and that sets the foundation of community meals that have now spread worldwide.
Langar Aid, a Sikh organisation, is a community feeding project run by Khalsa Aid, a humanitarian organisation based in the UK. They work around the globe, during any natural calamity or civil conflict. Langar Aid also runs on the same premise of working together and feeding people without any discrimination, just as it is practised in gurudwaras around the globe. This organisation has worked in the conflict zones of Iraq, Syria and Congo, as well as during earthquakes and floods in Indonesia, Kashmir and Kerala.
Pearl Sandhu, a filmmaker, says her elders always believed that such community meals in the gurudwara are meant to share joys and sorrows, and one should never take excess parshad from the langar . She explains that when everyone contributes to a langar kitchen, it is supposed to be a way of pooling in all our joys and sorrows; when one partakes of the parshad , one gets only a fair share.
At a recent meeting, I asked Chef Joel Basumatari from Nagaland about his langar experience at a Chandigarh gurudwara. To him, it felt much like being at his hometown church, praying the same way as he has all his life, only the process of this prayer involved shared cooking and eating.
During a panel discussion about community meals organised by RoundGlass Thali, the food initiative of RoundGlass, an organisation working towards holistic well-being, Gurcharan Singh Chani, a culture expert, said that he has seen the tradition of a langar being put to great use during Partition when refugee camps would organise them to feed the displaced masses. Thousands of people who were suffering the loss of their homes and loved ones, survived on these langars initially; later, many of them opened cheap dhabas as cooking and feeding was a proven way to sustain.
Sukhchain Singh Gill, an octogenarian farmer from Hansali near Chandigarh, tells me about simpler times when he was growing up in the 1940s, when gurudwaras in smaller towns would organise a langar only on auspicious days. “The bhai ji of the village gurudwara would walk around the village in the evening and everyone would contribute food or ingredients to his kitty. He would always return with enough milk, curd, butter, lentils, rice and vegetables to cook a meal for the gurudwara staff and any travellers who would stay at the gurudwara at night,” he said.
Sanju Aneja, a businessman from Old Delhi, says that the concept of community feeding has been adopted by some business communities of the city, who host langars on auspicious occasions such as Navratri and feed everyone, even though a community kitchen is lacking in this case.
It was Guru Angad Dev Ji who started the tradition of community kitchens with Mata Khivi (his wife) and started the seva tradition, indicating everyone needs to earn what they get to eat. Since then, the tradition of a langar has come a long way, ensuring human connect in peaceful times and healing in the times of conflict and devastation.