The word “langar” roughly refers to the Sikh community canteen that serves free pure vegetarian food in gurudwaras (religious institution of the Sikhs). In Persian, langar means a public kitchen set up by a great man for his dependents and disciples, and also the needy and sadhus (holy men). Also called Guru Ka Langar, langar functions in the gurudwara’s community centre area.

Langar hall in an Amritsar temple. Image credit: Flickr
Langar hall in an Amritsar temple. Image credit: Flickr

All gurudwaras have a langar. Any individual, irrespective of religion, language, caste or community is free to enter the gurudwara and have the free food, thereby breaking the social taboo that generally exists in the society. For the Sikhs, langar is a way for them to express all humans are equal. The biggest langar is set up in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, which feeds approximately 40,000 people every day. On weekends and holidays, the number goes up to 100,000.

Origin

Langar has existed in the gurudwaras for more than five centuries now, making it as old as the religious faith itself. It’s believed Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, set up the langar because he despised the social practice back then as per which people belonging to different castes didn’t eat together. Guru Nanak also served free food to hungry holy men. The next generation of Sikh gurus stuck to this tradition and langar soon became a Sikh tradition. In fact, Guru Amar Das, the third guru, made it mandatory for his visitors to eat at the langar before meeting him. Today, a gurudwara cannot be conceived without a langar.

Food Source, Preparation and Service

The gurudwara constantly receives monetary and non-monetary donation from worshippers, like any other religious institution. A major portion of the sum goes into running the langar. According to Sikhism, baptized Sikhs must donate 1/10th of their salary to charity every year. The non-monetary donation could be anything from a bag of rice to a sack of onions or any other eatable that contributes to the langar. The food is typical Punjabi village food – comprising rice, roti (flat bread), vegetables, Indian sweets, yoghurt, and lentils, to name a few.

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Langar kitchen volunteers. Image credit: Flickr

The gurudwara doesn’t employ dedicated professional cooks. All the people washing raw materials and utensils, prepping, cooking and serving the food are volunteers. Adult men and women, kids participate in the process. Generally, women play a major role in cooking the food. The men and kids mostly take care of serving and washing utensils. For the Sikhs, this volunteer service is of immense religious merit. Also, langar service volunteers are often seen serving disaster-hit areas, offering food, shelter and other essentials to the victims.

Meal Hall

The langar is open right from early morning till late evenings. There are no specific timings as such. Prior to entering the meal hall, people are expected to remove their shoes, wash their hands and put on a head covering (scarf, which is provided by the gurudwara). All are expected to sit on the floor, at the same level, in a line or row (called pangat), signifying equality. People – irrespective of their social, financial and professional status – are treated as equals. However, a few benches could be put up for the elderly or disabled.

There are no religious hymns or rituals performed before serving the food, so as to not make non-Sikhs feel alienated or being allured into the religion. However, a portion of all the prepared dishes is placed within a steel bowl and put in front of Guru Granth Sahib before dishing the remaining portions to the people. A prayer, called Ardas, is then performed as a ritual seeking God’s blessings.