A young man in a hot-pink turban raises his hands humbly as he sits crossed-legged on the floor. Into his raised hands falls a hot roti that he plops into the metallic tray in front of him. Next to him is an elderly woman wearing a saffron sari. She raises her hands next and is offered the same. On either side of them are hundreds of others, all seated cross-legged, and all with the same metallic tray.
Everyone eats the same food being dished out by the volunteers: dal, vegetables, and a thick South Asian rice pudding called kheer. It is lunchtime at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and of the nearly 100,000 people who eat here on an average day, not a single one of them will pay for the food they consume. Who said there is no such thing as a free lunch?
A meal of this scale is made possible by a cadre of volunteers and an astonishing amount of raw materials: 12,000 kilos of flour, 1,500 kilos of rice, 13,000 kilos of lentils, and up to 2,000 kilos of vegetables. While much of the work is done by hand, a mechanized oven and conveyor belt turn out 200,000 rotis on a daily basis. The langar, as it’s called, never closes—and even late at night, pilgrims will stop by for a meal.
Nearly 500 years ago, a Sikh guru living in the Indian subcontinent introduced a revolutionary idea when it comes to the consumption of food. The idea was simple enough: a place should exist where everyone, regardless of religion or social status, could sit on the ground together as equals and eat the same food. The philosophy behind this free meal was a radical departure from the prevailing norms, where caste hierarchies decided what you ate and with whom you ate it.
Tradition tells that Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, disappeared at the age of 30 after having a vision. Three days later, he reappeared, saying only that “there is no Hindu, and there is no Musalman [Muslim].” With these words, and the belief attached to them that all are equal before God, the Sikh faith was born. At the core of Sikh teachings about equality and oneness is the langar, a free community kitchen where everyone is welcome regardless of social or religious distinctions. The langar at the Golden Temple is a living example of the Sikh faith’s rejection of the notion of caste.
Though Sikh temples around the world have free kitchens, the langar at this colossal complex of white marble and gold is the biggest and most elaborate. With more than 100,000 visitors on weekdays, and swelling up to 150,000 on holy days, the Golden Temple attracts more visitors than the most famous of India’s tourist destinations, the Taj Mahal. After visiting the temple, devotees and visitors alike move in droves towards the langar, where the hundreds of volunteers are busy preparing food around the clock. The food never runs out, and no one is ever turned away.
In a 16th-century India heavily organized by caste, the idea of the langar was both spiritually and socially radical. In one sense, it was a tool to alleviate hunger, and in another, a powerful call to social reformation. The prevailing narrative of modern India is one that boasts the rise of new money and an increasingly powerful middle class, yet old social hierarchies tied to caste are still widely observed, particularly in rural areas. Discrimination based on caste has been illegal in India for more than six decades, but its presence is still felt in those areas of life where it always had a strong hold: religious worship, marriage, and food. In this climate, the langar remains almost as radical and revolutionary as it was 500 years ago.
“The Sikh gurus worked very intentionally to challenge social distinctions in various forms,” said Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.
According to Singh, the writings of the gurus speak explicitly about the problem of caste and reject any concept in which somebody has any more divinity within them than somebody else. Beyond the langar’s use as a lever for a more egalitarian society, Singh pointed to its more practical contribution to a community in the Middle Ages, one without modern technologies for agriculture.
“To create a space where people could just come for sustenance was revolutionary in terms of creating healthier communities,” said Singh. Even today, there is a large population of impoverished people who stay outside of the Golden Temple and rely on it as their source of food. “It created a resource for sustenance while also challenging the social divisions that were prevalent at the time, and which continue to be prevalent.”
In India, the phrase “you are what you eat” takes on a special significance. For a millennium, food in India has been consumed according to the rules of this vast and informal system of social engineering. It is organized like a food chain, with those wielding power and influence at the top, and those marginalized at the bottom. Food has also been a trigger for intercommunal violence. Hindu-Muslim riots have been sparked by the throwing of a pig’s or a cow’s head into the grounds of a mosque or Hindu temple. In lavish areas in Mumbai, housing complexes may use a “vegetarian-only” clause to keep out Muslims, Christians, or lower-caste tenants who may eat meat.
The recent ban on consumption and slaughter of beef in some states has been a particularly heated issue. Dividing lines have been drawn along caste and religious lines. Most other communities, except religious Hindus, include beef in their diet, mainly because it is cheaper than other proteins.
Although Sikhs are not exclusively vegetarian, the langar at the Golden Temple serves only nourishing vegetarian meals. The volunteers here come from different faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are young, old, and in-between, and work in a highly efficient, almost machine-like way. With each onion chopped or roti flattened, you can hear them chant, “Wahe Guru…Wahe Guru,” invoking the name of God.
One of the volunteers at the langar is Sukhdev Singh, a 55-year-old Sikh devotee from Fresno, California, who moved to Amritsar in 2013. Singh, with his flowing ivory beard and Khalsa blue vest, could easily be mistaken for a temple elder, yet he is one of the hundreds of people who flock to the kitchens of the Golden Temple daily to volunteer. Though today it costs tens of millions of dollars to run this kitchen, Singh reminds us that Guru Nanak began the langar with only 20 rupees and a handful of volunteers. Even with the astronomical cost, Singh says the donations for the cost of preparations are offered up to two years in advance in some cases. For the largely anonymous group of donors and volunteers, keeping this kitchen running is a religious and social obligation.
“There are only three things in our religion,” said Singh. “Chant the name of God, sing religious hymns, and volunteer. I work as long as my legs allow me to stand.”