September 5th, 2011
I am staying at a Niwas, (nee-vas) a pilgrimage hostel which has cots, lockers and modern bathrooms for weary pilgrims. They operate entirely on donations. Across the street is the Langar, a pilgrimage kitchen that serves free meals all day. They keep all the foreigners in one section of the niwas, which is strange but I can’t complain, as the rooms have fans, lockers, cots and mattresses. This is more than many other pilgrims had, as they slept outside on mats, open to the mosquitoes and noise of the street. The men that attend to the foreigners’ section were also very gracious.
The road between Langar and the niwas
Across the street from my niwas is the temple kitchen called Langar. All the meals are free and accept donations. The kitchen is awe-inspiring. It’s open 24 hours a day and serves between 50,000-100,000 meals a day. Everyone enters the dining room in shifts and sits on the floor in long rows. With your metal dish placed in front of you, men come by and fill your plate with dahl and rice from big silver buckets. You must cup your hands to receive the warm chapatti that is tossed from wide baskets. You can eat as much as you want but you have to eat fast, as soon they are squeegying the floor for the next wave of hungry pilgrims. The meals consist of slight variations of rice, dahl, chapatti and occasionally a curry of paneer. In the early morning they serve chai, and everyday I would get up at 4 or 5 to meditate on the roof of the Golden Temple and go have chai with the other early birds at the kitchen.
Sikhism beliefs aim to encompass the past, present and future, and so their food preparation reflects this. The dahl is the present, the rice porridge the past, and the chapattis are the future, as they use a machine to crank out over 80,000 round flatbreads a day. I highly doubt they grow their own food, like at the Sri Aurobindo ashram. I wonder if it’s donated or if they buy it?
(The Spokesman Review, June 5, 2011)
One of the pillars of Sikhism is selfless service. The Golden Temple and Langar are run almost entirely by volunteers, and the most amazing thing is that there are no sign-ups or volunteer shifts; people just show up to help for awhile and then when they leave someone else will wander in to take their place. Every process is brilliantly systematic and efficient, running on the positive energy of selfless offering.
As a cook and a political organizer, Langar fascinates me. I love getting to understand how systems work, especially for large groups of people. I wondered if this type of mass meal production would ever work in the US. Does it always need to be in a religious context to be effective, or could it work for other large gatherings, festivals, or rallies? I think it could work anytime you have a place or event that brings people together for a united and elevated experience. It doesn’t have to be spiritual, but you need to have an excess of willing hands in some sort of sacred space. For example, at the Anna Hezare anti-corruption protest they had a giant line of people that were fed 24 hours a day throughout the whole protest. An ideological, political bond inspired that protest kitchen. There could be a void filled with this kind of sustainable feeding system. Now all the US is missing is the fervent ideology for something…
One morning my roommates and I decided to help with some of the dish washing after breakfast. It was so fun! I jumped in and right away I was elbows deep in the metal tub scrubbing pans and bowls and spoons. They wash all of the dishes three times for maximum sanitation. The other volunteers were happy to see foreigners washing with them. Your mind becomes quiet listening to the chanting piped in through the loudspeaker overhead until the clanging of the dishes becomes a type of music too.
(The Spokesman Review, June 5, 2011)
I had forgotten how much I miss doing menial labor. No seriously, it is nice to chip in, but physical work is also a kind of meditation. That’s part of the reason I love cooking: the following of precise instruction, the mindless chopping and stirring. When I get back to Pondicherry I would like to start doing some washing or chopping or cleaning at the ashram. The Gita says that he who performs no physical work, yajna, is a thief. One of my roommates, a young Jewish Israeli, told me that part of being kosher is having some role in the preparation of the food. These practices are in place for a reason. There is no replacement for hard work to make you conscious and appreciative for the service you receive.