One of the earliest pieces I started with on this blog was with this picture of Guru ka Langar (or food for the congregation) in Lahore. The simplicity of daal (lentils) or in this case rajma (kidney beans) with roti (bread) is the basis of most langar served in a Gurdwara. As a child, I remember most children enjoyed going there in part because of the karah parshad (sweet halwa made from whole wheat flour) given at the end of the service and followed by the (free) food, which had its own distinctive divine taste, impossible to recreate at home.
Langar is the communal partaking of food when visiting Gurdwara. The concept has in recent years been popularised globally by Sikh organisations such as Khalsa Aid, which plan, produce and distribute langar to people across the crisis-ridden world, be it to the truckers stranded in Dover over the ongoing Christmas period or in recent war-torn Syria. With Langar spreading so does knowledge about and experience of the Sikh community. Currently, closer to the home of Sikhism in Punjab, Langar has been making headlines via the ongoing farmers’ movement against new farm laws in India. Communal kitchens have been set-up by the roadside to feed the thousands gathered on the borders of capital, Delhi.
The word ‘langar’ (meaning ‘anchor’) is thought to have come into the Punjabi language from Persian (Nesbitt: 29); although the idea was not unique to the Sikhs, as ‘both the Sufis and the Nath Yogis have a system of collective eating (langar khanah and bhandaras). The Sikhs, however, used it as venue for both service and charity and provided the food themselves [unlike] the Nath Yogis, who begged for food, and the Sufis, who often accepted land-grants to run their kitchens’ (Mann: 27).
Pictures are of Gurdwara Sacha Sauda, Farooqabad, Pakistan and about 37 miles away from Lahore. This gurdwara is revered with the origins of the langar and is situated not far from Nankana Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanak.
Baba Farid (1170s-1260s), a Sufi saint from the Chishti order, living in the Punjab, would distribute sweets amongst his visitors; a precursor to langar-khana near shrines, a practice documented in Jawahir al-Faridi (1620s) by a descendent of his. The khanqahs of the Chishti and other Sufi orders kept a langar open for the needy, but also others. It is said that ‘Khwaja Muinuddin established the tradition of an open kitchen for all who came…in an age of feudalism and violence’ (Talib: 6).
There is, of course, a much older practice of the alms house or dharmshala/sarai to feed travellers and poor for free, which is thought to have existed through the Gupta and Maurya (esp. Buddhist) times that is on either side of the BC/AD divide.
The connections between the Sufis and the Bhakti (devotional) traditions are well documented, inspired as both were by the idea of feeding the poor, the pilgrim and thereby removing divisions/discrimination among people. The idea concretised with the rooting of faith in the region and by early 17th century, it had become a recognised Sikh fixture (Desjardins).
Eleanor Nesbitt notes that, ‘in institutional terms, it was the third Guru, Amar Das [1479-1574], who gave prominence to the langar… [integral as] sharing food [was] to Guru Nanak’s Kartarpur community…it was Guru Amar Das who particularly emphasised the requirement for everyone to dine side by side, regardless of caste and rank’ (Desjardins: 29).
There were two women, who especially, ‘nurtured the development of the langar tradition in its formative period: Mata Khivi (1506-82) and Mata Sundri, the second and tenth Gurus’ wives’. The Guru Granth Sahib notes that ‘Khivi…is a noble woman, who…distributes the bounty of the Guru’s langar; the kheer—the rice pudding and ghee—is like sweet ambrosia’. After the death of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), ‘his widow Mata Sundri worked hard to continue the free community kitchen service. Records show her active role in fundraising for this purpose when the very survival of Sikhism was in question… (Desjardins).
The langar since is thus an integral part of the faith/religion, its compassion through the concept of Seva (self-less service); essential for all practicing Sikhs. Donating food or money is not as important as the practice of giving one’s time and service. Today the most famous community kitchen serving langar has to be the Golden Temple (Amritsar), where around 100,000 people are served on a daily basis. However, most Sikhs grow up visiting and worshipping at small local gurdwaras, where everyday worshippers and volunteers prepare food on a daily basis. These photos are taken from the local gurdwara at Mao Sahib (my father’s village, Jalandhar district), where the congregation prepare, serve, consume the langar and then clean afterwards. As the gurdwaras become more institutionalised, and as the historic gurdwara Mao Sahib (associated with the fifth Guru Arjan and his consort Mata Ganga, d. 1621) has come under the administration of the SGPC (the Sikh body responsible for the management of gurdwaras), voluntary seva has been added to by paid sevadars.
The pictures are of Mao Sahib, 2012, when the langar hall was undergoing a renovation and some of the langar preparation was taking place outside.
The idea of sitting and sharing food together is fundamental among Sikhs because it demonstrates the abolition of caste and dramatically asserts humble equality amongst all the people; regardless of their religious or caste background. The food is generally simple and vegetarian, to appeal to all and offend no one. Four core Sikh principles are enshrined in the langar: equality, hospitality, service, and charity.
Eleanor Nesbitt writes about how, ‘the Gurus were reformers who abolished the caste system or that caste is Hindu, not Sikh’. It is important to remember how revolutionary this was/is in a caste-ridden society. Nesbitt notes how, ‘the langar subverted Brahminical rules about commensality, according to which only caste fellows could eat together’ (118). Instead, it was proclaimed that, ‘a Sikh should be a Brahmin in piety, a Kshatriya in defence of truth and the oppressed, a Vaishya in business acumen and hard work, and a Shudra in serving humanity. A Sikh should be all castes in one person, who should be above caste’ (117). The Gurus, like the Bhagats Namdev, Kabir, and Ravidas, proclaimed the irrelevance of people’s inherited status to their spiritual destiny. In Guru Nanak’s view:
Worthless is caste (Jati) and worthless an exalted name,
For all humanity there is but a single refuge (Adi Granth 83)Quoted in Nesbitt: 118
Similarly, according to Guru Amar Das:
When you die you do not carry your Jati with you:
It is your deeds which determine your fate. (Adi Granth 363)Quoted in Nesbitt: 118
Bowker, John (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (OUP, 1997)
Desjardins, Michel, and Ellen Desjardins, ‘Food that builds community: the Sikh Langar in Canada’, Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures/Cuizine: revue des cultures culinaires au Canada 1, no. 2 (2009) https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/cuizine/2009-v1-n2-cuizine3336/037851ar/
Mann, Gurinder Singh, Sikhism (Prentice Hall, 2004)
Nesbitt, Eleanor, Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016)
Talib, Gurbachan Singh, Baba Sheikh Farid Shakar Ganj (NBT India, 1974)
More about Gurdwara Sacha Sauda: http://pakgeotagging.blogspot.com/2018/02/084-gurdwara-sacha-sauda-farooqabad.html