Langar Etiquette in India – 10 tips to visit like a local

Langar Etiquette in India – 10 tips to visit like a local

langar
Photos: Maria Visconti

“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…

Langar Etiquette

Here are a few tips on langar etiquette:

1-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.

langar hall
Scarf

2-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.

langar hall
Plates

4-Look around and you will see neat lines of carpet runners for people to seat on, most likely with people already eating. Sit down next to someone.

langar hall
Sitting down to eat

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).

langar
Left to right: Stainless steel buckets; Water
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Someone else will dispense water (or masala chai if you are in a big Gurdwara in India).

6-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.

langar

left to right; Making chapattis; Serving chappatis

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 (even if you find it uncomfortable). This is not well seen as it marks you as ‘trying to elevate yourself’, while the idea is of absolute equality.

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Cooking chapattis

8-Eat everything. 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-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.

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Finished with dinner

10-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.

langar hall
Washing up

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!

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.

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