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Photos by the author. Below, second image from bottom: Amrit Singh trying out his hand with a cauldron of aubergines.

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The Langar at Sri Darbar Sahib

Dr JOGISHWAR SINGH

 

 

 

I have evolved a system of getting over each bout of occasional pessimism about the state and future of our community.

I go and visit places where events from Sikh history took place … such as my visits to Chillianwala, Jamrud, Naushera, Nankana Sahib, Emnabad and other places in Pakistan, for example.

I also try to regularly visit the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar, an eternal source of inspiration. One of the factors making a visit to Darbar Sahib so special is feeling the devotion of thousands of ordinary people, a genuine devotion shorn of all intellectual tug of war which so frequently generates conflict in the minds of educated Sikhs torn between their material desires/needs and the principles of Sikhi which should be the lodestones guiding their lives.

A special feature of any visit to the Darbar Sahib is not just eating in the langar but visiting the rear portions of the langar building to actually observe the devotion in the form of voluntary labour which manifests itself in the feeding of over 100,000 visitors day in and day out.

Just watching men and women, Sikhs for the most part, uncomplainingly toiling in the hothouse atmosphere, peeling pungent onions/garlic, kneading the dough to make rotis, dicing vegetables, cleaning the utensils, it all makes me feel the Force which the Sikh Gurus generated centuries ago but which continues to imbue these devotees.

Pure love for the Gurus motivates these persons who spend so much of their time and effort doing seva at the Darbar Sahib and at other gurdwaras around the world.

My elder brother narrated something about his recent visit to Sultanpur Lodhi which crystallised what I feel and am trying to say. He told me that he heard pilgrims visiting the gurdwara where the weights with which Guru Nanak used to weigh the goods he was selling while employed at the shop in Sultanpur Lodhi saying, “Baba enhaan vatteaan de naal hi samaan tolda si” (Baba used to weigh merchandise with these very weights).

They were speaking about Guru Nanak exactly as they would about one of their own contemporary elders in the family. He was not some remote ethereal figure as depicted in Sobha Singh’s paintings but their own grandfather or “buzurg” (elder), referred to in the familiar form.

For me, their closeness to the Guru, indicated in their form of familiar address, represents the strength of his message. Such sayings show a closeness extending beyond simple awe generated by a remote religious icon.

During my recent visit to Amritsar, I was especially keen to show my younger son and his fiancée, both on their first visit, the functioning of the langar at Darbar Sahib. I wanted them to see the living manifestation of the Sikh faith at first hand.

Apart from the impressive statistic of the sheer numbers fed at the langar every day, its organisation should be a case study in all business schools worth their name. It was reported in Indian newspapers some time ago that Prince Charles had suggested to some reputed business school to do a case study on the Dabbawalas of Mumbai who deliver home cooked food to thousands of office goers without using fancy technological gadgets.

The organisation of the langar at the Darbar Sahib merits a similar study.

My family and I watched spellbound as teams of men and women patiently sat in hot and noisy conditions peeling vegetables, cutting fruit, kneading and spreading dough, emptying sacks of wheat flour, stirring huge cauldrons of lentils or milk mixed with rice to make “kheer” to be served as dessert in the langar.

All this was being done without any monetary incentive, with humble devotion visible on their faces. Many of them were quietly chanting verses from gurbani. Watching these Sikhs busy in their seva, the principle of “kirat karo, naam juppo, vund chhako” was coming alive before my tearful eyes … but not tearful because of the pungent onion/garlic smell wafting around.

The spirit of Sikhi was manifesting itself right there.

I was reminded about an event from Guru Ram Das’s life. He had been orphaned at a very young age. When there was some talk about his being chosen by the Third Master, Guru Amar Das, as a match for his daughter, sceptics sneered saying that who would choose such a poor orphan as a son-in-law.

Today, over 100,000 visitors are fed every day at that poor orphan’s palace, the Darbar Sahib. All those sceptics must be turning somersaults in their graves now!

It was fascinating for us to see how modern technology is now being martialled for the organisation of the langar at Darbar Sahib. The kneaded flour is flattened into roti form by rollers mounted on a big machine which produce flattened dough which is then fed in to gigantic roti making machines which, I was told, produce up to 3000 rotis per hour. We saw the roti making machine in operation.

Fully prepared rotis were being produced on a moving belt coming out of the innards of this gigantic machine. Volunteers were then taking the fully cooked rotis off the moving belt and carrying them to the langar hall to be served to visitors sitting on the floor in well ordered pangats (rows).

Unlike most places in India, there was no shoving or pushing to get at the food. Pilgrims were sitting patiently awaiting their turn in pangats to be served by sevadars moving with speed, serving lentils, kheer, rotis, vegetables, water in steel vessels.

All this goes on day in and day out, 365 days a year, all on a purely voluntary basis, only as seva.

It is a sight to warm anyone’s heart.

It was heart warming to see the devotion with which men and women were washing the utensils and cutlery, used in the langar. People used to chores like washing dishes know that it is not exactly the most exciting part of life, even if essential. The number of stacks of steel plates, glasses, spoons being arranged in perfect order by volunteers was impressive.

I looked at some of the plates closely. They were spotless and shining. There was no boredom or a sense of déjà vu, on the faces of the volunteers washing, drying or stacking up the dishes. Their devotion was not only visible but palpable.

My son tried his hand at stirring a large vat filled with lentils being cooked. He is a strong lad, 6 feet 8 inches tall, but he had to really use his strength to stir the lentils. I think volunteers doing this seva day in and day out would not need to spend money and time to go the gym for physical exercise!

We had to step gingerly between currents of flowing water, not exactly the five rivers of the Punjab but something to be carefully negotiated. Enormous stocks of ghee, wheat flour, lentils, vegetables and other materials used in the meals were to be seen all around.

I may, however, point out that special permission is required to visit the interior of the langar where all the preparations are being done. Readers should not get the impression that you can just walk in and start observing how the chain of seva is
organised in the langar.

My son and his fiancée, used to near empty churches in Europe, were fascinated by what they saw in the organisation of the langar. I showed them in reality how our Gurus had insisted on people sitting together partaking food to concretely break the shackles of the abominable Hindu caste system which forbade people from eating together on the same footing.

Sitting in the pangat in the langar hall, who knows the caste, religion, nationality, profession or status of his or her neighbours, all sitting together on the same floor eating the same food prepared by devotees whose caste or creed is equally unknown to those partaking the langar at all Sikh gurdwaras.

Yet, in spite of this, segments of Sikh society has not been able to liberate itself from the pernicious taint of the Hindu caste system. The caste system is not only alive in Sikh society but even flourishing amongst some of the better educated hyphenated Sikhs who drop the Guru’s gifted names Singh and Kaur.

I explained to my son and his fiancée that even the Emperor Akbar sat along with the sangat in pangat to have the langar when he came to meet the Sikh Guru in Amritsar.

This gesture showed Akbar’s greatness and humility as well as the Guru’s courage in insisting that the Emperor of Hindustan too behave exactly as any ordinary visitor coming to meet him.

I can only contrast this with our modern day behavioural norm in which most of us “lick up and kick below”. Sycophancy has become a way of life. I am always amused when I watch some of my former IAS colleagues behave in a humble manner before even minor white employees on their visits to Europe while they are monuments of arrogance to their subordinates in India.

The culture of British colonial fostered sycophancy is not only very much alive but flourishing in the corridors of the bureaucracy in India.

A visit to the innards of the langar at the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar provides such a refreshing contrast to the caste ridden sycophantic culture of society outside. It shows technological progress in the form of machines being harnessed for seva. It visually provides a glimpse of the spirit of Sikhi which has enabled us to remain in chardi kala inspite of suffering horrendous genocides, injustice and discrimination throughout our history.

I recommend such visits to each and every Sikh, especially those who, like me, suffer from occasional spells of pessimism about the future of our community.

So long as the vibrant spirit of seva as seen in the organisation of the langar at the Darbar Sahib remains what it is, Sikhi will continue to shine like a lighthouse of humility, service and equality, notwithstanding sceptics, hyphenated Sikhs or intellectuals too convoluted to understand the simplicity of its liberating message.


October 7, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 07, 2014, 3:37 PM.

Jogishwar Singh ji: This is the best ever description of Guru ka Langar. Might I suggest another possible title: "Nobody ever goes hungry in Amritsar." During Guru Har Rai Sahib's time, the Sikhs were sent on nightly errands to check if there was anyone gone to sleep hungry. Guru Sahib also declared that every Sikh kitchen shall ever remain open at all times as Guru ka Langar. This was the culmination of the seeds sown by Guru Nanak that struck at the very heart of the centuries old, abominable, iron clad Hindu caste system that unfortunately remains rife even today. Guru Nanak's was a revolution. He started His journey with Bhai Mardana, who belonged to the the lowest on the 'caste' rung even among Muslims. He lived the life He preached by declaring: "neechaa andar neech jaat neecha hoo utt neech / Naanak tin kai sang saath vadi-aa si-o ki-aa rees" [GGS:15.8] -- "Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low, the very lowest of the low. Why should he try to complete with the great?" We are still reaping the interest on the Rs.20/- invested by Nanak on his Sacha Sauda.

2: Harinder Pal Singh (Patiala, Punjab), October 07, 2014, 6:43 PM.

Jogishwar ji, again a very apt piece ... and an article I would term epicurean without the pun! I may add that Vivek Khanna, a Michelin star chef and a cult figure now, owes his inspiration and culinary skills to the divine langar of Darbar Sahib. I have many friends visiting from abroad and visiting Darbar Sahib. They are always unanimous about the soul-stirring experience of the visit and the icing on the cake - langar!

3: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), October 08, 2014, 9:32 AM.

I really like your suggestion of some business schools doing a study of the processes and workflows used to create and serve langar at Darbar Sahib. It'll be an eye opener for some corporate professionals that this complex and multi-layered process can be possible through a mind-set of service to others and harmony. They would see management concepts such as Customer First, Service and Teamwork in full action. Maybe doing a case study like this would fit well in the charter of the newly formed Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz where their focus is on Punjab economics.

4: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 08, 2014, 4:40 PM.

love it! Awesome.

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