By Dawn Green
There is often a correlation between the relationship of food and how it connects people. It is fair to say that food often plays a central part of many celebrations and gatherings across multiple cultures, and there is no exception when it comes to the Sikh community. Perhaps the main differentiation is that a special occasion does not need to be present for this occurrence.
This symbol of Sikh philanthropy, and in fact the founding of Sikhism, dates back as far as the 1480’s, when the first Guru Nanak Dev was sent to town as a teenager with money provided by his father in search of a worthy investment. To his father’s dismay, Guru Nanak stumbled across a group of emaciated and shivering men in great need of food and clothing. He ventured to the nearest market and used all of his money to purchase food and blankets for the less fortunate.
Guru Nanak had always questioned the use of money for selfish reasons, other than to help those less fortunate and clearly in need. He marveled at how families could desert their loved ones and leave them to live in such terrible conditions.
This was around the time that the birth of the Langar took place. A Langar is an open/common kitchen where food is prepared and served to anyone in need. These kitchens are found inside every Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship), and in modern day can be found operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Guru wanted to create a community of gathering, no matter the sex, age, religion, creed or social status of its patrons. During this particular period of time, people of varying religions or castes were never seen taking or sharing food and water with someone of a different religion. This fact alone points to the immensity of the movement started by the first Guru.
Sikh families devote much of their time providing service to their community and those around them, preparing and serving food on a daily basis. Known as Sewadars, it is routine for one or more families to commit to this service of Langar, and in some of the largest Sikh temples preparation can take place for as many as 50,000 to 70,000 meals daily. While Sikh’s have an obligation through religion to donate 1/10 of their earnings towards their community, it is more highly regarded to donate service to Langar. This type of service is also thought to teach etiquette of sitting together as a community for meals.
There are some very specific requirements that must take place for a truly sacred Langar. Meals are to be simple vegetarian dishes, preparation must take place while reciting Gurbani (a prayer), all food is to be shared without prejudice and all food must be hygienically prepared. During preparation of the food, the mouth and nose of the Sewadars must be covered with a cloth knows as a “parna”. Upon completion of the food preparation, small portions of each item are put on a dish and placed in front of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (a juristic person) and a prayer is then performed. Once blessed, the individual dishes are then returned to their original pots, thus passing on the blessing to those who consume the food. As these individuals sit as one on the floor, they savor the meals together and dismiss any social status between them.