An act of compassion: Langars in India

Research conducted over years has confirmed that compassion is one of the inherent characteristic traits of human beings. Compassion towards other human beings, animals and all living beings comes naturally to us and we can see small acts of kindness happening in our daily lives frequently.

We are unknowingly committing acts of compassion when we feed street dogs, when we lend someone an umbrella, when we help elderly people cross the road. But there are people who have devoted their entire lives to these acts and made uplifting the ones in difficult situations their motive in life.

Such is the case of the Sikhs who have carried on the tradition of Langar in Gurudwaras, small and big, across the nation of India. Langar, also known as the Langar of Guru or Mahaparasada, is the free distribution of food to all the visitors of the temple. For the religious Sikh people, providing food to the hungry without any expectation in return is the highest form of devotion to God.

Langar, translated to kitchen in Punjabi, refers to the community kitchen operated by the Sikh community where free meals are distributed to all visitors without discrimination on the basis of status, religion, caste or gender.

Anyone who turns up at the Langar is asked to cover their heads with a piece of cloth, preferably white, and handed a plate where they will be offered food.  The food is served and the kitchen maintained by the Sikh community volunteers called Sewadars. The tradition of covering the head came from the fact that the culture wanted the visitors to respect the meal offered to them.

The meals, which are prepared in huge utensils over wooden stoves, are served with the intention of feeding the hungry with delicious and nutritional quality food. The vegetarian meal set usually consists of lentil soup, rice, roti, vegetables and kheer (rice pudding). The visitors to the temple are served the hot meals in rows where they are asked to sit in a row on the premises of the temple or Gurudwar and eat together.

In ancient history, it is stated that the tradition of Langar in Sikhism was introduced by Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikh community. He adopted this form of free meal distribution to promote that there exists equality among all people, regardless of their class, gender, race, religion or caste.  It was the second Guru of Sikhism, Guru Angad, who systematized the Langar by allowing every visitor to the temples receive a simple vegetarian meal set for free. Guru Angad also set the training rules and regulations for the volunteers of the Langar.

However, it is the third Guru, Guru Amar Das, who institutionalized the tradition and made it a customary tradition for all Sikh temples. The people who visited him had to first visit the Langar and dine with people, regardless of their status or religion, in order to have a meeting with the Guru.

The Golden Temple located in Punjab’s Amritsar, also known as Darbar Sahib, the holiest pilgrimage of Sikhism in the world, has one of the biggest Langars in the world with around 50,000 people visiting on a daily basis. On special occasions, the Langar can accommodate a crowd of about 150,000 people, for two meals in a day.

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