It is lunchtime at the Guru ka Langar at Amritsar’s gleaming Sri Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple, and I can’t quite wrap my head around the numbers. On the average day, 75,000 people eat a free meal here. About 12,000 kilos of flour will be used to make 2,00,000 rotis for the congregation. More than 100 gas cylinders and 5,000 kilos of firewood will be used to prepare the meals.
I am in Amritsar because temple food has always held a special place in my heart. This shrine runs one of the biggest community kitchens in the world, and I want to see how they run the show. So before we head to the langar hall, my guide, Davindarji, takes me on a tour of the kitchen. We start with a piece of equipment that is obviously the pride of the kitchen: the automated roti-maker, which can churn out 25,000 rotis an hour. I watch fascinated as the machine, accompanied by a high-decibel rattle, rolls out perfect spheres by the dozen. It is pressed into action on days when larger crowds are expected. On other days, volunteers make the rotis by hand.
In fact, because the gurudwara has a small staff, much of the work here is done by volunteers who peel, chop, cook, and serve the thousands of devotees and tourists who flock to the Amritsar’s No. 1 tourist attraction. I see groups of women cleaning and chopping brinjals for the day’s meals. Elsewhere, volunteers use long rods to stir bubbling vats of dal. The air is thick with the pungent aroma of onions, garlic, and spices. Volunteers sanguinely brave the rising steam from the vegetables, dal, and kheer.
Back in the langar hall, I sit to eat with strangers. In keeping with the tenets of Sikhism, all barriers of religion, caste, and social status are obliterated as diners share a meal as equals, sitting on the floor in a line (pangat). With a call of “Jo bole so nihal… sat sri akal”, we begin eating.
As the pangat starts to leave, more sevadars rush in to carry the plates to the cleaning area. Another team of volunteers begins washing them. Still others mop the floors, keeping the kitchen and the langar halls spotless.
Outside the langar, hot chai is available. As I sip a small cupful, I marvel at the extraordinary feat the temple achieves every day, upholding the ideals of community service so cherished by Sikhism. On my way out, as I collect my footwear from the area where it is stored, I notice that my dusty shoes have been wiped clean. Sikhism emphasises the importance of seva, or service, as a route to negating the ego and finding peace. Looking at the contented faces of the sevadars, that certainly seems true.
The Golden Temple is open, and serves langar, 24 hours a day. At around 4.30 a.m., the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is carried from the Akal Takht, in another part of the complex, around the main shrine. The first hukumnama (order of the day) is read at around 5 a.m., while the last is read at 9.45 p.m. At around 10 p.m., the Palki Sahib (holy palanquin) on which the holy book lies, is taken back to its resting place. Throughout the day, there are kirtans, prayers, and readings from the holy book. As with all Sikh shrines, the head must be covered at all times, so remember to take along a scarf.
This story was commissioned by National Geographic Traveller, India and was published in their June 2014 edition. Read it here.