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Rolling Rotis In Amritsar's Golden Temple

SHOBA NARAYAN

 

 

 






Amritsar, Punjab

The line moves forward. I sail forward, enveloped by a crowd of Sikhs. This is my first visit to a gurdwara. I am already favourably inclined to a faith that reveres a spiritual Scripture instead of worshipping the countless images and idols that I am used to as a lifelong Hindu.

The inside of the gurdwara has that strange combination of hush and buzz that is the hallmark of places of worship. Sikh spiritual music is beautiful. I hear it in the background as I move through the sacred spaces of the gurdwara. Roses are scattered around the scripture, known as Guru Granth Sahib. Devotees move around, almost in a haze, praying and submitting themselves to the divine energy inside.

After spending half an hour inside, I walk around the pool in which the Golden Temple sits. In one corner are a group of volunteers handing out glasses of water. In another are people from afar, resting under the eaves. Men and women step inside the tank to bathe themselves.

And finally, there is the entrance to the feeding area: the langar.

The communal kitchen at Harmandar Sahib is large -- yes, but curiously and disproportionately small given the number of people it feeds everyday. Some 50,000 people eat here on an average day. The number rises to 100,000 on festival days. Given these eye-popping numbers, the kitchens where all the food is prepared are relatively tiny -- about the size of a small Bombay flat, but with none of the accompanying squabbling. In fact, the cooks here are supremely serene.

There are two kitchen areas: one where the dal is cooked in vats large enough for three grown men to crouch on top of each other. The second kitchen is where the roti assembly takes place. It is here that I land up: a South Indian of dubious culinary prowess, determined to prove my worth to volunteers who have perhaps been rolling out rotis since they could hold a rolling-pin.

All religions are linked to certain ideas, which end up becoming stereotypes associated with them. These are core philosophies of the faith that are believed by the faithful. Hinduism, for instance, claims to be a tolerant religion (present day intolerance and fundamentalism notwithstanding) that purportedly welcomed people of all faiths to its shores in the past. Christianity and Zoroastrianism are linked to service through the establishment of schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Buddhism is linked with the idea of Zen, mindfulness, and meditation, all of which are the catchwords of current neuroscience.

Sikhism, though, is irrevocably linked with community and public service.

No other faith is as generous and welcoming of the hungry -- anyone, everyone -- as the Sikhs are, even though every faith has feeding of the poor as one of its tenets. Indeed, by some accounts, the idea of langar itself may have its origins with the Chishti Sufis of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Persian word, langar, represents an asylum or sanctuary for the poor and destitute.

Guru Nanak’s genius lay in not just establishing the practice of feeding the poor, but also making it egalitarian -- controversial in a land plagued by the Hindu caste proclivities, both historic and in the present day.

The idea that people could sit together and have a meal, regardless of caste, creed, gender, class or religion was revolutionary on the subcontinent in the 15th century when Sikhism was born. Today, however, when discrimination continues to haunt the land, the notion of langar is intertwined with Sikhism.

What makes the practice so special is not just the fact that thousands of people sit beside each other -- men, women and children; rich and poor; people of all castes and religions -- and partake of a meal in every Sikh place of worship not only here but in every part of the world, but also the fact that hundreds of people cook together in their community kitchens.

It is the kitchen therefore that is my first if tentative stop when I enter Harmandar Sahib.

The sound of the langar kitchen is the clattering of thousands of plates, cups and other stainless steel vessels being washed in the dishwashing area. To wash discarded, used plates requires a level of humility and service that this particular Tamil Brahmin Hindu -- raised on the concept of impurities around, inter alia, the consumption of food in the company of ‘others’ -- does not have. So I quickly walk through the other parts of the kitchen area.

People sit in circles -- chopping garlic, slicing onions, peeling carrots and potatoes, pulling off cauliflower florettes from its stem, and carrying large bowls of chopped vegetables to the other section where it will be cooked in even larger containers. An entire section is devoted to rotis, and it is here that I eventually settle, attracted by its warmth and comforting fragrance.

There is a clear division of labour. Some volunteers simply roll the dough into small balls, another group presses them into perfectly round flatbreads, and the third group pops them over the flame to create fluffy rotis. I, ambitiously and foolhardily, sit in the rolling section. Almost immediately, a young, turban-clad boy brings me a plate of evenly divided dough. I begin rolling. It starts to look like the map of India.

A kindly woman sitting next to me says, “I think you need to start again.”

“In the south, we make rotis of different shapes,” I fudge and then feel bad for my subterfuge in a holy place.

“Acchha,” she says, smile firmly in place.

I look down and determinedly roll more rotis -- each one tracing a different map. It is her smile that gets to me. I collapse my map of India into a round ball of dough and begin again. About 10 tries later, my roti too becomes round and even. I have to come all the way to Amritsar and sit in a community kitchen in order to learn to make a perfectly round roti, I tell myself ruefully. The approving smiles from the people all around me makes it worth it.

Adjoining the dal and roti kitchens are the washing area and the food prep section that are humming with activity. All together they are smaller than the dining halls where 5,000 of the faithful sit cross-legged on the floor to eat a simple but tasty meal of dal, roti, sabzi and sweet kheer. I join the queue that waits to enter the dining area. We are waved through in batches, and quickly -- if undignified -- grab our spot on the floor.

An assembly line of volunteers serves food and collects discarded plates with a humility that is a paradoxical hallmark of this faith that emphasizes standing tall in the face of obstacles. Miri and Piri as they are called: twin actions that are represented in the intertwined swords. The word ‘miri’ comes from the Persian symbolizing worldliness and temporal obligations The word ‘pir’ refers to the spiritual side of life, balancing the temporal. A marked departure from other religious paths which tend to focus on one more than the other.
 
Two elder Sikhs collect finished plates and toss them into a giant vat. The leftover food is separated and the plates handed over to the washing area. I too hand over my plate and walk out of the langar area.

How do you determine the strength of belief? Adherence to a religion can be the baseline. Adherence during times of global turmoil, when one faith is under siege, usually from members of a different faith is harder. Hardest of all is sticking to your religion during times of great personal crisis.

Back home in Bengaluru, I talk to my Sikh friends about their religion. As with all religions, the strength of personal belief is complicated and varying. Hardship can cause an increase in belief or it can be viewed as a betrayal, causing the devotee to forsake God forever.

One friend tells me about her parents who began their life as devout Sikhs. They lost their only son to a road accident when the boy was but twenty years old.

“Instead of questioning their religion, or feeling betrayed by God, my parents gained all their strength from Sikhi,” said my friend. “It was their life-raft at the time of extraordinary difficulty. Not once did they question their faith. Indeed, it was their religion that saw them through the loss of my brother. It kept them sane. It allowed them to survive, to live.”

Isn’t this why the faithful seek solace in to God? Because they cannot make sense of the crises and events that confront them? Because they realize that much of life is beyond their control?

Telling yourself that you are an atheist is simplistic, in my view. To gain succor from a faith and God offers the greatest spiritual (and psychological as per recent studies) reward.

Sikhism is a peaceful path that empowers Sikhs to take the good and the bad, joy and sorrow, with equanimity.


[Courtesy: Live Mint. Edited for sikhchic.com]
February 12, 2017
 

Conversation about this article

1: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), February 13, 2017, 12:18 PM.

Refreshing to learn through the eyes of a non-Sikh. We Sikhs need to treasure and keep guard on the path laid out for us.

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), February 13, 2017, 2:55 PM.

A true Sikh is a God-conscious person. His/her belief that service of humanity is service and worship of God. and that God resides in all. Sikhi defines and concentrates on humanism: Naam, Daan (service of humanity) and Ishnaan (Divine Wisdom).

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 14, 2017, 1:20 AM.

Shoba, you have Narayan’s blessings to have devotedly written this loving description of Harmandar Sahib and its age-old tradition of langar. Your roti has come out perfectly circular. During Guru Har Rai Sahib’s time, Sikhs were sent out routinely to ensure that no one had gone to sleep hungry. To this day ‘no one goes to sleep hungry in Amritsar’ -- “jithai neech samaalee-an tithai nadar tayree bakhsees” [GGS:15]). “The place where the lowly are cared for, there your blessings of your grace rain down.”

4: Dr K.N. Singh (Johor Baru, Malaysia), February 16, 2017, 1:26 AM.

Sikhi is unique as it's fulfillment is in giving. Except, no matter what, one always receives far more than one can give. Langar seva teaches us the art and the value of giving as the primodial need of hunger must be satisfied before all other needs. Guru Nanak in his infinite wisdom taught us to first and foremost give to those in need what we can ... even in the form of service, if we have nothing else to give.

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