Langar: Faith in Food

We started, as all visitors do, by taking off our shoes and covering our heads. For those who don’t usually wear turbans or a scarf, there are spare ones provided. As we followed the grandiose staircase upwards, the Sikh’s holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, housed under a golden canopy, came into view. After bowing in respect and sitting for a while to take in the sweet sounds of the holy book being sung aloud.

Gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, practice their service to Humanity by providing this free, round-the-clock kitchen. People of any race or religion are welcomed to eat Langar, which consists of solely vegetarian food, while sitting on the floor with everybody else. This dining style was introduced by the Sikh founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji as a symbol of everyone’s equality, a theme that is resonant throughout the Sikh Faith.

The whole system, from food preparation to cleaning up, is run by volunteers who offer their help and service selflessly. This is what in Sikhism is called Sewa. And those who give Sewa are Sewadars. The most warming part of this is that they don’t expect anything in return. As Gurdeep Singh took us on a tour around the kitchen, we watched as women tossed and beat dough into round, flat shapes to make chapatis. At the next table, men were leaning over a burning hot-plate, flipping the flattened dough until it was slightly browned.

Sewadars like Gurdeep Singh devote time to serving Langar almost every day. Preparing the dishes, which range from daal (lentils) to kheer (semolina), starts at 2 in the morning in order to feed hungry mouths by 5 a.m. In a continuous cycle throughout the day, trays are taken, filled and emptied by visiting worshippers, and given to another group of Sewadars who are in charge of washing up. By 9 or 10 at night, the kitchen is sparkling clean again, ready for another day of hard work to begin again in a few hours time.

The day that the Gurdwara is pulsing with energy and life is on a Sunday. The Sewadars, along with the the Chefs, feed from 5,000 to 10,000 people on this one day. We stood in the fridge among gallons upon gallons of milk that would all be used in one day to make kheer. 

After a long day, we took a metal tray from the pile. A ladel-full of daal, vegetable curry and kheer was added to our tray as we moved along. We were also offered chapatis, masala tea and jalebi, a sweet battered pretzel doused in syrup. As we sat and ate this delicious meal, the Gurbani, or devotional songs, played continuously, echoing throughout the spacious rooms, soothing the soul.

Southall is home to the grand, awe-inspiring Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara. But this isn’t the only place in London you can join this community experience. Upton Park and Southfields are also home to major Gurdwaras, as well as the oldest Gurdwara in Europe in Shepherd’s Bush.

Multimedia by Jody-Lan Castle and Bibek Rajbhandari, article by Jody-Lan Castle.

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