Inside the Sikh Temple Serving 10,000 Free Meals a Day
At the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi, rice and dal aren’t just lunch; they’re an act of worship
The entrance to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib bars none, so long as visitors' heads are covered and their feet are bare. With any luck, they’ve brought a healthy appetite, because the largest Sikh temple in Delhi also serves roughly 10,000 hearty vegetarian meals each day, free of charge.
Lunchers must first wet their feet in a shallow tank of water before they climb a set of white marble steps reaching up to the temple door that stands open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The sonorous call of the rabab, a classical stringed instrument, drowns out the hectic traffic of Connaught Place, Delhi's bustling financial and business center that sits just outside the temple complex's towering white gates.
Inside the gurudwara—literally the door to the Guru—devotees wrap around the perimeter of a golden shrine that dates back to the 1700s. Some worshippers stand and sing before the shrine, which resembles a small, ornate canopy, with their hands clasped to their chests, while others bend low to the floor in prayer.
But the most compelling form of worship isn't found here; it's beyond the shrine, past the courtyard decorated with tourists and pilgrims taking selfies, eating karah parshad—a sweet temple gift made of flour, ghee, and sugar—and leisurely strolling around the sarovar, an expansive pool of water that's believed to be sacred and all but fills the open marble complex that's bookended with staunch white porticos. Families linger on the steps overlooking the pool just long enough for a child to get lost and found in the crowd, then follow the faint scent of hot roti until they reach the entrance to the holiest sanctuary of all, the kitchen.
A crowd of over 200 people waits patiently outside, seated on the floor between a tall iron fence and a series of glass doors that will soon open into the langar, the food hall. Volunteers of all ages, called sewadars, quickly prepare the bright airy room for the next communal meal. The marble floor is swept and mopped after each serving before long, skinny mats are rolled out in neat rows separated by aisles wide enough for volunteers to proceed down, doling-out shiny stainless steel trays and spoons to each person seated.
On this particular afternoon, a man stands at the front of the full room wearing a tightly-wrapped purple turban and a matching vest. Holding a megaphone to his lips, he delivers the meal time prayer in Punjabi before a hushed crowd. A second wave of volunteers trail behind his words, depositing warm discs of bread into each person's upturned palms, a simple gesture of gratitude by visitors for the meal to come. A third group follows, heaving buckets of rice, dal (cooked lentils), sabji (vegetable stew), jeera aloo (cumin-spiced potatoes), pickled okra and mango down the rows of people seated back-to-back and side-to-side. Stomachs growl in anticipation as the food is dished onto their trays and then quickly scooped-up by roti or spoon.
Over the course of 15 minutes the volunteers make their rounds—offering one, two, three more heaping spoonfuls of food until, as if on cue, each tray is all but wiped clean with the last piece of roti, and the guests rise to leave.
Meal sharing is a vital component of Sikhism, perhaps best conveyed through the common prayer, "Loh langar tapde rahin," or "May the hot plates of the langars remain ever in service." Every gurudwara from Delhi to London to Wisconsin offers free meals in its langar, and they should not be confused with a charity soup kitchen. Middle class families, who make up the majority of those gathered at the Bangla Sahib, sit on the floor alongside the elderly, students, doctors, teachers, working class folks, and beggars. In theory, everyone who enters the langar eats together, as equals, but few of the poor who live on the streets beyond the temple gates are to be found here.
While meals are served inside the langar, an orchestra of food preps, cooks, and dishwashers are scattered throughout the massive kitchen, working to keep up with temple-goers' appetites. Outside, across from a hall that sleeps hundreds each night for free, ten men and women rest on overturned crates or sit cross-legged on the floor, peeling and halving hundreds of red onions—the building blocks for many of the dishes on the menu. Crisp, pink onion skins pile-up around their ankles like leaves in autumn. A bearded man wearing a fuchsia turban reaches into a large plastic bowl to retrieve, then swiftly peel and slice an onion on a wooden board. The older man seated next to him, with silvery whiskers under his nose and a silky leopard-print bandana around his head, peers through bifocals as he docks each end of the juicy bulb in his hand.
Inside the pristine marbled kitchen, black iron cauldrons the size of garden tubs bubbling with yellow dal squat over gas flames, while a man wielding a giant flat-headed shovel stands above, constantly stirring the aromatic mixture. Below him, the remaining surface area of the kitchen is given over to roti assembly lines. Dough is rolled and shaped on 12-foot long tables sitting low to the floor, then transferred to equally long griddles whose heat quickly transforms the white discs into puffy, golden-brown flatbread.
Amidst the constant cooking and cleaning, that begins early each morning and doesn't end until after midnight, there is laughter and leisure. A young woman wearing a mint green handkerchief over short-cropped hair sits nestled between two copper pots. Her fingers intertwine around a cup of chai—or is it broth?—and her lips fold over a grin as she gazes through the framed glass windows that separate the kitchen from the langar, where the afternoon meal is winding down.
The far corner of the room is the final destination for dirty pots, trays, and spoons but while the dish racks are empty for a moment, a jovial group of dishwashers recline on makeshift chairs, off the clock, legs crossed, backs pressed against a large window through which warm sunlight streams, illuminating the slick, freshly-cleaned stone floor beneath their bare feet and the steam rising above the cups in their hands.
Some say the word langar comes from the Hindi word langal, which means plough or anchor. Sikhs embody both interpretations of the word: the langar is in constant, laborious motion—cooking, serving, cleaning, then repeating it all over again roughly 50 times each day. As a result, it is the kitchen in the back, not the shrine at the entrance, that provides sanctuary and fellowship, a place of rest for all who enter.