One day in Delhi, we were walking around Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in the city. Outside the Sis Ganj Sahib Sikh temple, we bumped into a friendly guy called Vijay (or rather, he bumped into us). The friendliness, it turned out, came complete with a small tour inside the temple, or gurudwara as Sikh temples are called. I’m happy we joined him because he introduced us to something interesting: the Langar, a free, communal kitchen that can be find in every gurudwara across the world.
On this early afternoon, a Saturday in December, the gurudwara is packed with people. Visitors enter from the busy street, where rickshaws and cars fight over space with Delhites who do their best to make their way through. We enter the temple with Vijay, who asks if we want to see the kitchen. Sure, that sounds interesting.
But it’s only when we start making our way past the long and jam-packed line with people – yellow-golden-red sarees, orange turbans, bare feet and covered heads, beads and pearls, jeans, shirts and embroidered shawls – that we understand how big the undertaking really is.
“And this kitchen is a small one,” says Vijay. “You should see the one in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, that one is maybe ten times as big as this.”
He leads us further in to the room where the food is cooked. Inside are some twenty people, busy with preparing the dishes. An old man with a massive, white beard watches over a huge metal pot where a vegetable curry is simmering. A low wooden table gathers half of the people in the room, who use their hands to form small chunks of dough into neat and round chapatis. The breads are handed over to another team, who bake them over a big open fire in the corner.
“Everyone is a volunteer,” says Vijay. “The kitchen is open every day, all year around, and is one hundred percent run by volunteers. Anyone can come here to help with the cooking, and anyone is welcome to come and eat.”
To Vijay, communal work is an important part of Sikhism. The whole idea of the open kitchen, he says, is to create a sense of unity between people from different backgrounds.
“Here, everyone eat together, seated next to each other in a long row. There is no distinction between the guests: we serve all on the same basis. This is a step on the way to eradicate caste and social classes.”
The gurudwara and its kitchen is open to all on equal terms. Vijay smiles and says that not even Barack Obama got a special treatment when he was in India last time. Obama wanted to visit the temple in Amritsar, but was denied when his staff asked to have it closed for the president’s visit.
We continue to wrestle our way past the remainder of the queue, up to the gate leading in to where the visitors have their meals. There is a spectacular, organised chaos at the entrance, where yet more volunteers portion out the food and take care of the dirty plates. Young boys and girls sit in a circle on the floor, scraping leftovers off of metal plates, then, a human chain sends the plates to the dishwashers: ladies, old men and youth crowded around a big, rectangular sink.
Several thousands are served in the kitchen daily. Vijad says 25,000, which sounds like an unbelievable number. Either way, the crowds do not lessen a bit: as soon as one seating is done, there are new guests waiting to rush to grab an empty spot on the floor.
For the volunteers, running the kitchen is a way to practice seva, one of the pillars of Sikhism, which means giving of your time and effort to others. Quite an interesting example of volunteer work the gurudwara kitchen, with its myriad of plates, bread, volunteers and hungry guests.
Karim Mostafa took the pictures.