“May the iron pots of the langars ever remain in service” is part of a Sikh prayer – a reminder of how important the tradition of community kitchens is among the followers. If you have ever taken a conducted tour of Delhi, you have probably been to one of the main Sikh Gurdwaras there and seen the langar (community kitchen) in full swing. They have become a tourist attraction. But you don’t have to go to Delhi to have the experience. Practically anywhere in the world where there is a Sikh community, there will be a Gurdwara and a working langar.
Go along and witness a centuries’ old tradition. You maybe be seating next to artists, doctors, taxi drivers, accountants or labourers, but you will never know. And that, precisely, is the idea…
Here are a few tips on langar etiquette:
1- Bring a scarf
If you have a scarf handy, cover your head. If you don’t have one, you will be offered one. Wear it. This goes for both men and women. India is an inspiring country and for solo female travellers in India, it’s not as scary as you might think.
2- Remove your shoes before you enter the Langar
Remove your shoes before you enter the Langar. It will be obvious where to leave them. In very busy Gurdwaras there are volunteers who will take them and give you a token for their retrieval later on.
3- Just observe and follow the line
There will be a place where plates, spoons and cups are stacked. Get some.
4- Make a new friend
Look around and you will see neat lines of carpet runners for people to sit on, most likely with people already eating. Sit down next to someone.
5- Place your plate and cup on the ground
Volunteers will come around dispensing food from shiny stainless steel buckets. You should indicate whether you want a small portion. If not, you’ll get the full serve. One volunteer does the rice, another dhal or curry (whatever is on offer that day).
Someone else will dispense water (or masala chai if you are in a big Gurdwara in India).
6- How to receive your Chapattis
For this flatbread treat, cup both hands, raise them to the volunteer with the basket and one will be dropped into your hands with a plop… bring your hands and chapatti close to your forehead in a gesture of thanks.
These chapattis are special. Handmade in most Gurdwaras by volunteers, they can also be made by machine in the very busy ones.
7- Do not lift your plate from the ground to eat
Do not lift your plate, even if you find it uncomfortable. This is not done as it is seen as an attempt by to be ‘trying to elevate yourself’, while the idea of eating in a langar is of absolute equality.
8- Eat everything on your plate
Waste is not something you do here. To avoid wastage ask for small portions. If you like it, you can always have more when the volunteers do another round.
9- Practice awareness in a langar
When you are finished, get up and look around. If any of your close neighbours have also finished, take their plates away too (especially if they are elderly). Awareness and kindness are well regarded and practised here.
10- Clean up
Take your empty plate to the place indicated; clear it of small bits and leave. There will be more volunteers washing up. If you’d like to help washing up, let it be known and have fun sharing in the community spirit.
Community Kitchens in India
At these community kitchens people of all castes and religions, partake of a nutritious vegetarian meal, sitting on the ground in neat rows, free of charge.
At its inception- in the 16th-century and even today -in some parts of India- the concept of a community kitchen was a revolutionary one because people in the past would not even drink water from wells belonging to other religions, or take food prepared by the lower castes.
Established by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, founder of the Sikh faith, the langar has been an integral part of Sikhism since 1515 when Guru Nanak established his first Gurdwara in Kartarpur (now in Pakistan after Partition) together with a hostel or serai.
Partake and enjoy by getting into the spirit of equality! Visiting a langar is a great idea if you’re travelling on your own or backpacking India alone as it’s a good way to make new friends.
Photos were all taken by the author at the Baal Leela Gurdwara’s Langar in Patna, Bihar, India, where she stayed at their serai for a week.