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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
HE COOKS lentils in a pot the size of a plunge pool. Jitendra Singh's soupy concoctions help feed tens of thousands of people each day at the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.

The glimmering temple is one of India's best-known religious monuments but its kitchen is also something to behold.

''This is the biggest free eatery in the world,'' says Jitendra, as he stokes the wood fire beneath his bubbling pot that holds 500 kilograms of grain and takes 11 men to lift.

It is hard to dispute his claim. On weekdays the Golden Temple's canteen, called the langar, provides meals for about 80,000 people. On weekends and festival days twice that number may turn up.

What makes the langar even more remarkable is that the food is prepared and distributed mostly by unpaid helpers.

The kitchen manager, Raghbir Singh, says more than 1000 volunteers usually come. ''We encourage everyone to do social service here, and anyone can join in. Many of those who help have prestigious jobs, like bank managers.''

Not far from where Jitendra tends his mammoth vessel, bearded men in saffron turbans lug sacks of wheat to supply a team of women rolling chapattis, the flat bread favoured in northern India. Near them, 100 people wash up in long sinks amid the crash of steel plates. An enormous drying rack stores an estimated 40,000 plates, bowls and spoons.

Meals are served in two dining rooms that rotate about 700 people at a time. There is no furniture. Visitors sit on the floor and are served a vegetarian meal of lentils, rice, vegetables, chapatti and a milky sweet. Chai is also offered.

At the end of each sitting, cleaning teams move in to sweep and swab the smooth concrete floors.

''Nobody will go hungry here,'' Raghbir says. ''Anyone can come and find a meal 24 hours a day.''

It has been that way since the 16th century, when the temple's free kitchen was founded by the Sikh guru Amar Das.

The Golden Temple is a spiritual sanctuary in the heart of Amritsar, a city close to the Pakistan border in India's northern Punjab province.

Locals call the radiant shrine the Harmandir Sahib - the abode of God. Its dome is said to be gilded with 750 kilograms of pure gold. Many visitors prostrate themselves in front of the temple and bathe in its pool.

Religious leaders inside the temple maintain a continuous chant from a Sikh holy book kept there. This is amplified around the vast temple complex, adding to the sacred atmosphere.

The Sikh religion, which emerged in the Punjab region about 500 years ago, rejects the social hierarchies of caste, a precept of Hinduism.

The principle of equality is enshrined in the langar, where everyone eats together sitting on the floor, regardless of social status.

The army of volunteers is testament to another key tenet of the Sikh faith. ''Without selfless service our bodies will become like hell,'' says Dalbir Singh, the temple's information officer. ''There can be no worship without good actions.''

Volunteers from all walks of life help prepare food and clean up. Some arrive at 4am and stay until late in the evening.

As he chops ginger over a steel pot, Gurchand Singh, a retired military man, says: ''Sikh scriptures tell us that a person will enjoy the fruits of life when doing service.'' He and several friends work at the langur five or six times a week.

Mukhwinder, 30, sits with a team of vegetable cutters surrounded by garlic skins. ''I used to come with my mother so I have lived this service since childhood,'' she says. ''But I am still very content doing it.''

Bhuinderjit Singh, a commercial pilot, cuts onions beside a man wearing a pair of industrial goggles so his eyes do not sting. ''I experience God doing this,'' Bhuinderjit says.

There has been deadly tension between Sikhs and India's Hindu majority but people from all religions are welcome to eat, and serve, at the langar.

Sanjkta, a Hindu from the distant province of West Bengal, sits peeling garlic with a group of local women. ''Yesterday I came here to eat with my family but today I have come to offer service,'' she says.

Many pilgrims visiting the Golden Temple - both Sikhs and Hindus - consider a meal at the langar a spiritual blessing.

Sonu Pandey, a Hindu from the neighbouring state of Haryana, emerges beaming from the dining hall. ''This is a very special meal,'' she says. ''It's is not just food; it is something offered to God.''

Baramki, who visited the temple with a busload of 50 Hindu pilgrims from the state of Uttar Pradesh, described eating at the langar as ''prasad'', a Hindu term meaning something edible offered to God.

Like the labour, much of the food used at the langar is donated.

Volunteers also help keep the temple complex clean. Twice a day, the wide marble walkway around the perimeter is scrubbed by scores of unpaid workers who scoop buckets of water from its pool, then sweep, swab and mop.

All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the temple, so volunteers run a footwear-minding service at each entrance. This provides another opportunity for voluntary service: after 6pm leather shoes left by forgetful visitors are polished free.



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Roop Kaur

Mar 4, 2010
I just read this! Great to see Australian newspaper informing the community about the beauty of Sikh seva. Makes me feel so very proud


May Waheguru bless us all with the opportunity to one day do seva at Harmandir Sahib

Rab Rakha.

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