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The Langar or free community kitchen is a hallmark of the Sikh faith. It was established by the first Guru of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, around the year of 1481. It is designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people of the world regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender, or social status; to eliminate the extreme poverty in the world, and to bring about the birth of "caring communities". In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of Langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness, and oneness of all humankind. "..the Light of God is in all hearts." (Guru Granth Sahib, 282)
For the first time in history, Guruji designed an institution in which all people would sit on the floor together, as equals, to eat the same simple food. It is here that all people high or low, rich or poor, male or female, all sit in the same pangat (literally "row" or "line") to share and enjoy the food together.
The institution of Guru ka Langar has served the community in many ways. It has ensured the participation of women and children in a task of service for mankind. Women play an important role in the preparation of meals, and the children help in serving food to the pangat. Langar also teaches the etiquette of sitting and eating in a community situation, which has played a great part in upholding the virtue of sameness of all human beings; providing a welcome, secure and protected sanctuary.
Everyone is welcome to share the Langar; no one is turned away. The food is normally served twice a day, every day of the year. Each week a family or several families volunteer to provide and prepare the Langar. This is very generous, as there may be several hundred people to feed, and caterers are not allowed. All the preparation, the cooking and the washing-up is done by volunteers and or by voluntary helpers (Sewadars).
Besides the Langars attached to gurdwaras, there are improvised open-air Langars at the time of festivals and gurpurbs. Specially arranged Langars on such occasions are probably the most largely attended community meals anywhere in the world. There might be a hundred thousand people partaking of food at a single meal in one such langar. Wherever Sikhs are, they have established their Langars. In their prayers, the Sikhs seek from the Almighty the favour:
- “Loh langar tapde rahin."
- "May the iron pots of Langar be ever warm (in service).”
Origin Of Word 'Langar'
Guru ka Langar (lit. 'Gurus' communal dining-hall) is a community kitchen run in the name of the Guru. Often referred to as the Guru's Kitchen it is usually a small room attached to a gurdwara, but at larger gurdwaras, such as the Harmandir Sahib, it takes on the look of a military kitchen with tasks arranged so that teams of sewadars prepare tons of food (all meals are vegetarian) for thousands of the Gurus' guests daily. Langar, is said to be a Persian word that translates as 'an almshouse', 'an asylum for the poor and the destitute', 'a public kitchen once kept by a great man for his followers and dependants, holy persons and the needy.' Some scholars trace the word langar to Sanskrit analgarh (cooking room). In Persian, the specific term langar has been in use in an identical sense. In addition to the word itself, the institution of langar is also traceable in the Persian tradition. Langars were a common feature of the Sufi centres in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Even today some dargahs, or shrines commemorating Sufi saints, run langars, like Khwaja Mu’in ud-Din Chishti’s at Ajmer.
Sacha Sauda or "True business"
The life and activities of Guru Nanak were remarkable from early childhood. His father, Mehta Kalu was keen that his son should adopt a respectable and lucrative profession. At the age of 12, his father wanted him to be a trader and thus gave him 20 rupees and asked him to use the given money to "strike some good and profitable bargain" - to do a "Sacha Sauda" or to "strike a good bargain" meaning get into a profitable trading situation.
Instead of doing a worldly "good bargain", the Guru bought food with the money he had, and distributed everything among the local sadhus (holy people), who had not eaten anything for days. When his father asked him what happened to the money? He replied that he had done a "True business" by feeding the hungry holy men. His father was very angry that his son had wasted the money and scolded him. However, his elder sister, Mata Nanki stood by her dear brother and strongly defended his actions.
Such noble actions of the young Nanak and his refusal to hoard worldly wealth indicated that he was no ordinary man, but one who was destined to be a true Guru, a spiritual teacher of mankind. Today, at the place where Guru Nanak had fed the poor, stands a Gurdwara named Gurdwara Sacha Sauda. This is how this tradition of Langar (serving of free food) started in Punjab.
The principle of Guru Ka Langar is so important that even when the ruler of India Emperor Akbar visited Guru Amar Das Ji, he too had to first sit in pangat lined up with commoners sharing simple foods cooked by Sikhs who months before may have been from any of India's castes. Anyone had to take Langar before he was allowed to meet with the Guru. Hence the mighty Emperor who was usually served elaborate dishes with complicate sauces, all of which had to be first tasted to assure he was not poisoned sat amongst people formerly of all castes and religions, which outside of the Sikh Langer people of differing religions would not even drink water from those of another religions' well. Or take food cooked by other of a differing religions hands. The Langar started by Guru Nanak was truely a revolutionary idea. Akbar was so impressed by the Langar and the service that it shared to people of any religion, that he offered a great jagir (a sizeable estate with several villages and the right to the products and produce produced by the tenants) as a contribution to the langar' maintainance. As the Mahima Prakash records, the Emperor refused to step on the silks spread out for him by his servants when going to call on the Guru. He turned aside the lining with his own hands and walked to the Guru’s presence barefoot. The Guru would not accept the Emperor's offer of the jagir, so Akbar offered it as a wedding present for the Guru's daughter. It is believed that the gifted land, is today, the city of Amritsar.
When President Nasser of Egypt visited the Golden Temple he was so touched to see so many Kashmiri Muslims, Hindu’s, Christians and Sikhs sitting together to eat in the Langar that his party left all the money they carried with them as a contribution to it’s running.
Comments made by Langar takers
- "Hospitality of the highest order... Sikhs with fabulous generosity, offer everyone free food called "Langar". You walk into a tent, take your shoes off and put a (provided) white cloth on your head and sit on the floor in long lines. The assembly line efficiency is staggering" Georg von Harrach, BBC correspondent
- Renu Lauer, a Princeton University student ... described her discovery of the langar as a "happy shock." ... It suggested that the Sikhs had "the ability to balance having a very united and secure community with being able to give to everyone without a sense of discrimination" Gustav Niebuhr for beliefnet.com
- "This is the true 'Sewa' to humanity" Sher M, Illinois, USA
- "What a great service, a glowing example to everyone" Br Shubamrita, Kevala, India
- "The fruits of your labour made me a better person" Betty O, Barcelona
- "You make it easy for me to believe in God", Mika W, Sweden
- "Your grace and hospitality have left a lasting impression", Priscilla E, Illanois, USA
- "You are showing us all the abundance of God's love" Debbie M, USA
- "Your hearts are completely open, thank you and God bless", Diane W, New York
Voluntary & Selfless Service
The Langar is run by sevadars 'volunteers doing selfless service’ Sikhs and others who wish to help. It is a community kitchen and anybody can help in its running. This function of Sewa results in a community feeling in peoples' minds as they drop their mask of ego. The feeling of "I" or "me" is forgotten as they perform this valuable service to humanity.
The langar continued to perform its distinctive role, even in days of the direst persecution. Bands of Sikhs forced to wander in the deserts, jungles and mountains surrounding Punjab would cook whatever they could get, and sit in a pangat to share it equally even as they risked their lives as they dogged the trains and caravans of the Durranis, raiders who came to India for its treasures taking away the young men and women whether Sikh, Hindu or Jain as plunder to be sold in Afghanistan as slaves. Whatever food they had was shared with them all. Later, when the Sikhs came into power, the institution of langar was further consolidated because of increased number of gurdwaras running langar. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was generous in rebuilding many Gurdwaras that had been damaged in the wars and was generous in assigning sizeable jagirs to support them. He also ordered many more Gurdwaras built.
Rules concerning the tradition of Langar
The Langar must be:
- 1. simple vegetarian meals
- 2. prepared by devotees who recite Gurbani while preparing the langar
- 3. served after performing Ardas
- 4. food distributed in Pangat without any prejudice or discrimination
- 5. all food must be fresh, clean and hygienically prepared
Importance of Langar to Sikhism
Bhai Desa Singh in his Rehitnama says, "A Sikh who is 'well to do' must look to the needs of his poor neighbours. Whenever he meets a traveller or a pilgrim from a foreign country, he must serve him devotedly.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh made grants of jagirs to gurdwaras for the maintenance of langars. Similar endowments were created by other Sikh rulers as well. Today, practically every gurdwara has a langar supported by the community in general. In smaller gurdwaras cooked food received from different households may comprise the langar. In any case, no pilgrim or visitor will miss food at meal time in a gurdwara. Sharing a common meal sitting in a pangat is for a Sikh is an act of piety. So is his participation in cooking or serving food in the langar and in cleaning the used dishes. The Sikh ideal of charity is essentially social in conception. A Sikh is under a religious obligation to contribute one-tenth of his earnings (daswand) for the welfare of the community. He must also contribute the service of his hands whenever he can, service rendered in a langar being the most meritorious.
Keep the langar ever open
The last words of Guru Gobind Singh before before he passed away at Nanded were, Keep the langar ever open , his final wish requwsted of Bhai Santokh Singh. One of the lines in Guru ji's Dasam Granth reads: “Deg tegh jag me dou chalai—may langar (charity) and sword (instrument of securing justice) together prevail in the world.” The first Sikh coin minted in the eighteenth century carried the Guru's maxim in Persian: “Deg tegh fateh—may langar and sword be ever triumphant.”
Simple, High Quality Food served Free
An essential part of any Gurdwara is the Langar, or free kitchen. Here the food is cooked by sevadars and is served without discrimination to all. After the Sadh Sangat has participated in any ceremony, they are served the Guru’s Langar. It was inspired by Guru Nanak’s act of serving food to wandering holy men when given money by his father to strike a good bargain. The practice of serving food to all was started with Guru Nanak’s Sikhs at Kartarpur.
The Guru’s Langar is always vegetarian, and traditionally is made up of simple, nourishing food. Strict rules of hygiene and cleanliness are important when preparing the Langar (i.e., washed hands, never tasting it while cooking). Individuals with communicable diseases should not participate in the preparation of Langar. It is also suggested that Gurbani be recited during the preparation.
Once Guru Gobind Singh, disguised as an ordinary pilgrim, made a surprise check of the langars at Anandpur. He discovered that Bhai Nand Lal’s langar was the best maintained (he had been turned away at several other Langars, where he was told to come back when the food was ready), but at Bhai Nand Lal's he had been served even though the Langar was not yet ready with the usual meal. He complimented him and asked others to emulate his standards of dedication and service. One of Guru Gobind Singh’s commandments was that a Sikh visiting another Sikh’s door must be served food, without hesitation or delay. Another of his sayings ran: “Gharib da munh guru ki golak hai — to feed a hungry mouth is to feed the Guru.” This spirit of common sharing and of mutual co-operation and service was the underlying principle of the Sikh tradition of langar.
Gurus direct Contribution
Guru Nanak and his successors attached a great deal of importance to langar and it became, in their hands, a potent means of social reform. The former gave it the central place in the dharamsala he established at Kartarpur at the end of his preaching tours. Guru Nanak, as did Guru Angad, toiled in the fields to provide for himself and for his family and to contribute his share to the common langar.
He had such of his disciples as could afford to set up dharamsalas and langars. Among them were 'Sajjan Thag, then lost to godly ways, and a wealthy nobleman, Malik Bhago, both of whom had converted to his message. Bhumia, formerly a dacoit, was asked by Guru Nanak to turn his kitchen into a langar in the name of God. A condition was laid upon Raja Shivnabh of Sangladip (Sri Lanka) that he open a langar before he could see him (Guru Nanak). The Raja, it is said, happily complied.
Guru Angad, Nanak II, further extended the scope of the institution. He helped with cooking and serving in the Langar at Khadoor Sahib. His wife, Mata Khivi, looked after the pilgrims and visitors with the utmost attention. Such was her dedication to work in the langar that it came to be known after her name as Mata Khivi ji ka Langar. Mata Khivi has the distinction of being mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib by the bard Balvand who pays homage to her in his verses, in the SGGS. To quote the stanza:
|SGGS Page 967 Shabad 3586 Read text in English at the bottom of the screen
| "Guru Angad was proclaimed, and the True Creator confirmed it.
Nanak merely changed his body; He still sits on the throne, with hundreds of branches reaching out. Standing at His door, His followers serve Him; by this service, their rust is scraped off. He is the Dervish - the Saint, at the door of His Lord and Master; He loves the True Name, and the Bani of the Guru's Word. Balwand says that Khivi, the Guru's wife, is a noble woman, who gives soothing, leafy shade to all. She distributes the bounty of the Guru's Langar; the kheer - the rice pudding and ghee, is like sweet ambrosia. The faces of the Guru's Sikhs are radiant and bright; the self-willed manmukhs are pale, like straw. The Master gave His approval, when Angad exerted Himself heroically. Such is the Husband of mother Khivi; He sustains the world. ((3))"
The Var by Satta and Balvand also applauds Guru Amar Das’s langar wherein “ghee and flour abounded.” In spite of rich variety of food served in his langar, Guru Amar Das ate a simple meal earned by the labour of his own hands. “What was received from the disciples was consumed the same day and nothing was saved for the morrow.” Contributing towards the Guru ka Langar became an established custom for the Sikhs. Partaking of food in Guru ka Langar was made a condition for disciples and visitors before they could see the Guru. Guru Amar Das’s injunction was: “pahile pangat pachhe sangat”—first comes eating together, then meeting together.” Langar thus gave practical expression to the notion of equality.
At Goindwal, during the time of Guru Amar Das Ji a rule was instituted that anyone who wanted to have a meeting with the Guru (receive his Darshan) would have to eat food from the Langar. Even when the Emperor of India, Akbar came to see Guru Amar Das, he sat in pangat (where Langar is served) before meeting the Guru. From that time forward, at Goindwal, Langar was served 24 hours a day.
Bhai Jetha, who came into spiritual succession as Guru Ram Das, served food in Guru Amar Das’s langar, brought firewood from the forest and drew water from the well. By such deeds of devoted service, he gained enlightenment and became worthy of the confidence of Guru Amar Das. Langar served to train the disciples in seva and to overcome class distinctions.
The institution of langar had become an integral part of the Sikh movement by now and, with the increase in its numbers, it gained further popularity and strength. With the development under Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan of Amritsar as the central seat of the Sikh faith, the capacity of the local Guru ka Langar increased manifold. Sikhs came from far-off places to see their Guru and to lend a hand with the construction work. They were all served food in Guru ka Langar.
Bhai Manjh, was was attracted to Sikhism from a Muslim sect, engaged himself in serving the Guru's langar by fetching fuel wood from the nearby jungle. Once, due to inclement weather, he fell into a well whilst carrying wood on his head. On hearing this, the Guru Arjan Dev rushed to the well with necessary equipment. When the ropes were lowered, Bhai Manjh requested the Guru to draw out the fuel wood first, as he considered dry wood more essential than himself. It was done, and when Bhai Manjh was drawn out, the Guru embraced him in his wet clothes blessing him, "Manjh is the Guru's beloved. Whosoever keeps his company shall be redeemed."
Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur travelled extensively in north and northeast India. This led to the establishment of many new sangats. Each sangat meant an additional langar. In the reign of Guru Gobind Singh, the institution of langar acquired further significance. At Anandpur, the new seat of Sikhism, a number of langars were in existence, each under the supervision of a devoted and pious Sikh. Food was available in these langars day and night.
When preparing food for the Langar, the mouth and nose will be covered by a piece of cloth known as a "parna". Also during the preparation due regard is made to purity, hygene and cleaniness, the sevadars (selfless workers) will normally utter Gurbani and refrain from speaking if possible.
When the Langar is ready, a small portion of each of the dishes is placed in a plate or bowls and placed in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and a prayer called the Ardas is performed. The Ardas is a petition to God; a prayer to thank the Creators for all His gifts and blessings. A steel kirpan is passed through each item of food, after the "Guru-prashad" has been blessed. The blessing of the Langar with Ardas can be done anywhere, in case the Langar needs to be served before the completion of the Gurdwara ceremony. The Langar is not eaten until the Ardas has been recited. After the Ardas is completed, each item of food is returned back to its original pot or container. It is said that the blessings of the "holy" food are thus passed to the entire Sangat through the Langar.
When serving the Langar, the servers must observe strict rules of cleanliness and hygiene. Servers should not touch the serving utensils to the plates of those they serve. When serving foods by hand, such as chapatis or fruit, the servers’ hands should not touch the hand or plate of those they are serving. Those serving should wait until all others have been completely served before they sit down to eat themselves. It is advisable not to leave any leftovers.
Since some Sikhs believe that it is against the basics of Sikhi to eat meat, fish or eggs, hence non-vegetarian foods of this sort is neither served nor brought onto the Gurdwara premises. Others believe that the reason vegetarian food is served in Gurdwaras is so that people of all backgrounds can consume the food without any anxiety about their particular dietary requirement and to promote complete equality among all the peoples of the world. Alcoholic and narcotic substances are stringently against the Sikh diet, hence these with any meat products are strictly not allowed on Gurdwara premises.
A Means of Social Reform
Community kitchens came into existence with the Sangat or holy fellowships of disciples which sprang up at many places in his time. Sikhs sat in pangat (literally a row) without distinctions of caste or status, to share a common meal prepared in the langar. Besides the kitchen where the food was cooked, langar stood for the victuals as well as for the hall where these were eaten. The disciples brought the offerings and contributed the labour of their hands to prepare and serve the food. The institution of Langar had thus demolished the long established caste barriers and gender prejudices of the time.
High caste Brahmins would eat from the hands of low caste Sudar and vice-versa. This practise, slowly overcame the century old established prejudices ingrained in the minds of common people of the land. Before the establishment of Langar, a Brahmin would not eat in the presence of a low caste person and was thought a bad omen if a low caste person was to enter a room where the high caste Brahmin was eating. The institution of Langar has contributed greatly in putting an end to these ancient social prejudices in the culture of Northern India.
- Gateway to Sikhism
1. Bhalla, Sarup Das, Mahima Prakash. Patiala, 1971
2. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909
3. Teja Singh, Growth of Responsibility in Sikhism. Bombay, 1948
4. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970
5. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990
6. Prakash Singh, The Sikh Gurus and the Temple of Bread. Amritsar, 1972
7. Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, New Delhi, 1978
Above adapted from article By Prakash Singh
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