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All images: details from photo by Lynsey Addario.


The World's Largest Eatery




Amritsar, Punjab

The groaning, clattering machines never stop, transforming 12 tons of whole-wheat flour every day into nearly a quarter-million discs of flatbread called roti. These purpose-built contraptions, each 20 feet long, extrude the dough, roll it flat, then send it down a gas-fired conveyor belt, with a never-ending stream of hot, floppy, perfectly round bread emerging at the other end.

Soupy lentils, three and a third tons of them, bubble away in vast cauldrons, stirred by bearded, barefoot men wielding wooden spoons the size of canoe paddles. The pungent, savory bite wafting through the air comes from 1,700 pounds of onions and 132 pounds of garlic, sprinkled with 330 pounds of fiery red chilies.

It is lunchtime at what may be the world's largest free eatery, the langar, or community kitchen at this city's glimmering Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.

Everything is ready for the big rush. Thousands of volunteers have scrubbed the floors, chopped onions, shelled peas and peeled garlic. At least 40,000 metal plates, bowls and spoons have been washed, stacked and are ready to go.

Anyone can eat for free here, and many, many people do.

On a weekday, about 80,000 come. On weekends, almost twice as many people visit. Each visitor gets a wholesome vegetarian meal, served by volunteers who form the backbone of the Sikh community.

"This is our tradition," said Harpinder Singh, the 45-year-old manager of this huge operation. "Anyone who wants can come and eat."

Sikhism, which emerged in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century, strongly rejects the notion of caste, as well as most other concepts based on ritual, superstition and hierarchy which lie at the core of Hinduism.

The Golden Temple, a giant complex of marble and glittering gold that sits at the heart of this sprawling, hectic city near the border with Pakistan, seeks to embody this principle. Nowhere is it more evident than in the community kitchen, where everyone, no matter his religion, wealth or social status, is considered equal.

Guru Amar Das created the community kitchen during his time as the third Sikh guru in the 16th century. Its purpose, he said, was to place all of humanity on the same plane. At the temple's museum, one painting shows the wife of one of the Gurus serving common people, "working day and night in the kitchen like an ordinary worker," the caption says.

Volunteerism and community support are the central tenets of Sikhism expressed in the langar. When the Mughal emperor Akbar tried to give Guru Amar Das a platter of gold coins to support the kitchen, he refused to accept them, saying the kitchen "is always run with the blessings of the Almighty."

Ashok Kumar, a Hindu with a scraggly beard, has been coming to the kitchen for the past five years - all day, almost every day - to work as a volunteer. "It is my service," he explained, after reluctantly taking a very brief break from his syncopated tray sorting.

A white scarf covered his head, and his hands were bound like a boxer's. His job is to man the heavy bucket that receives the dirty plates and bowls. He is the last man on a highly organized line that begins with collecting the spoons, dumping out any leftover food, then loading giant tubs of dirty dishes bound for the washing troughs.

Plates and bowls fly at him, but he never misses a beat, using a metal plate in each hand to deflect the traffic into the tub. Plates go around the rim, while bowls get stacked in the middle.

Ashok used to be a bookbinder.

"I feel happy here," he said when asked why he had given up his old life.

People of all faiths come here to find a measure of peace largely unavailable in the cacophony of the nation's 1.2 billion people. Like the thousands of pairs of shoes left at the temple gates - all enter bare-footed, in traditional humilty, after washing their feet at the entrance -  the chaos and filth of urban life are left behind at the marble entrances.

The temple is a world of cleanliness and order - where the wail of the harmonium and the shuffling of bare feet are the only sounds, and every square inch is scrubbed many times a day.

Pankaj Ahuja, who owns a medical supply shop in Rajasthan, was visiting the temple for the third time, this time bringing his wife and son, who had never been before. They took the Golden Temple Express train, and were sleeping in the pilgrims' dormitories, which are also free. The family is Hindu, but this gurdwara - the Sikh term for their places of worship - has a special significance for them nonetheless.

"You have lots of religious places in this country," said Ahuja's wife, Nikita. "But the kind of peace and cleanliness you find here, you won't find anywhere else."

Back home, cleaning floors would be considered degrading for someone of her status - in Hindu households, only people of Hindu 'low caste' usually do such work. But here, Mrs. Ahuja happily scrubs floors.

"In normal life, I would ask, ‘Why should I do this?' It is shameful to clean floors," she said. "But here, it is different."

Indeed, she never gives a moment's thought to who prepared the food in the kitchen, even though in India's highly stratified caste traditions within the majority Hindu community, such matters are vital.

"It is more than food," she said of the meals that she had eaten at the community kitchen. "Once you eat it, you forget who is cooking, who is serving it, who is sitting next to you."

Anil Kumar, a 32-year-old Hindu, was up to his elbows in soapy water at one of the washing troughs.

"At home, I would never do this," he said with a laugh. "It is my wife's work."

But he said he tried to come for at least an hour every day to wash dishes. "It is not a question of religion," he added. "It is a question of faith. Here I feel a feeling of peace."


[ Courtesy: New York Times. Hari Kumar contributed to the reporting. The article has been edited for this site.]

August 20, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), August 30, 2010, 12:06 PM.

Beautifully written and unbiased. Thank you, Lydia. If we can all take this message home and make this world a Harmandar (Golden Temple) - the world would be the heaven we seek.

2: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), September 01, 2010, 8:21 AM.

This is the first time that an American newspaper has published a positive message about Sikhism. Sikh leadership should come out of the gurdwaras and make use of the print and electronic media to spread the word of the Gurus.

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