Volunteering in India at the Sikh Temple
Feeding the Masses at the Sikh Temple and Feeling Good in India
By Donnie Sexton
I found my way to the kitchen at the Sikh Temple in New Delhi, India and took my place with several others on a low bench in front of a huge flour-covered table.
My task was to roll out chapatis, (tennis ball sized dough) until flat like tortillas. These piles of flatbreads, a staple in the Indian diet, were then carried over to hot griddles to be cooked until brown spots appeared and tossed into baskets to be served as part of the free meal. Volunteering at the Sikh Temple was something I have always wanted to do.
I had been to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the most prominent Sikh temple in Delhi, four times. I was continually blown away by this place that serves 30,000-40,000 free meals every day (50,000 on Sundays), all of which are prepared, served and cleaned up afterward by volunteers.
My “do-good” gene had been tugging at me to volunteer should I be so lucky to find myself in New Delhi again.
As life goes, this opportunity fell into my lap, and here I was, huddled around a table with strangers for a few hours, all of us quiet and focused on the business at hand of fashioning chapatis. Sikh devotees are most often the volunteers, but anyone is welcome to participate.
Every Sikh temple around the world has a Langar, (free community kitchen) . Guru Nanak Dev Ji (founder of the Sikh religion) established the Langar because he rejected the Hindu caste system where people of different castes do not eat together.
He wanted to stress the idea that everyone is equal.
Anyone, regardless of religion, caste, gender, ethnicity, or financial status is welcome to partake in a vegetarian meal at a Langar.
Some combination of lentils, dal, rice, kheer, and always chapati is served, along with a variety of vegetables dependent on the day’s donations. Langars depend on both monetary and food donations to provide free meals.
The Kitchen Scene
The kitchen prep was seamless. Along one wall was a series of large copper cauldrons and giant woks, all heated with gas, where massive quantities of food were prepared at the Sikh Temple.
Men did the demanding job of cooking, using long metal and wooden paddles to stir the food. The heat given off from the gas flames was excessive.
These cooks surely must have built up a tolerance standing barefoot on the hot surface. Off to one side were an automated dough mixing contraption and another machine spitting out chapatis, as it was apparent our volunteer work in rolling out the dough couldn’t keep up with the quantity needed for the meals.
India’s Way of Life
No one paid any attention to onlookers or tourists wandering in and out of the kitchen. I couldn’t help but think this would never happen in the US where we are so strict about hygiene and safety in public facilities that serve food.
Barefoot people wandering in and out of a commercial kitchen, no safety precautions with the scalding hot woks, and volunteers randomly sitting down to handle the raw dough without any food handler gloves would send America’s health departments into a tailspin. But this is India, and this way of life works flawlessly for Indians.
Filling the Belly
Meals were served communal style in a large, marbled- floor dining hall. Long runners were laid down, then those waiting for a meal filed in, took a seat on the runner, legs crossed in typical India style. Volunteers passed out metal plates, followed by servers who moved down the rows scooping out dal, rice, lentils, etc. from large metal buckets.
Chapati was tossed from baskets into the hands or onto the plates of those eating. Those serving made the rounds two and three times to be sure everyone got their fill -- it was an “all you can eat” affair. Guests ate and moved on – no lingering. Once the dining room cleared out, volunteers doused the floor with buckets of water and swept it clean for the next seating, while others were on task with washing the plates.
A Must-See Attraction
I rate this Sikh house of worship a must-visit attraction in Delhi. It is open 24 hours every day of the week, and there is no charge to enter. It is a welcome respite from the chaos, congestion and noise in a city of 29 million people. The vibe within the Sikh complex oozes of serenity.
The temple welcomes all visitors by ushering them into a room to comfortably remove socks/shoes and receive a headscarf (suggest bringing your own as it’s mandatory for all heads to be covered).
If anyone desires information on Sikhism or this particular house of worship, volunteers stand ready to answer questions. One enters the temple through a golden canopy. Inside is a copy of the holy text of the Sikh religion elaborately displayed. Reading of the holy book, singing of hymns and praying are all part of what happens within this sacred sanctuary.
In addition to the temple, there is a hospital, school, art gallery, and Yatri Niwas (rooms for devotees to stay overnight). The centerpiece of the complex is the Sarovar, a large holy pool where devotees may scoop up the water or perhaps take a dip. You move around the pool clockwise, being careful as the marble floor can be slippery if wet. An alleyway connects the temple complex to the Langar.
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib was first built in 1783 as a small shrine to honor Sikh Guru Har Krishan. This particular Guru had used water from a well on this site to cure people inflicted with smallpox and cholera, and thus the water was viewed as holy.
This well, now enclosed in a tank, still exists today at the Gurudwara with the belief it possesses healing power. A drink of this holy water is offered to visitors.
While I’m not Sikh, I have unending admiration for the principles upon which Langars are based: Remember God (Nāam Japo); Honest work (Kirat Karō); and Share with others (Vaṇḍ Chakkō).
It is a religion without prejudice and focused on treating all of humanity as equals. If only we could erase the intolerance in our world today…
I walked away from the kitchen knowing that my tiny contribution of a few hours with the rolling pin was trivial in terms of the work needed to feed the multitudes. I gained a new respect for and a clearer understanding of the Sikh culture and religion.
My “do-good” gene had morphed into a “feel-good” gene, surrounded by the goodness of mankind hard at work in that kitchen. The challenge for me now is seeking out more enlightening and meaningful experiences every time I set off in a new direction.
All arrangements for this trip to India, which included the colorful and crazy Holi Festival (a future story), were made through Indus Trips, which I highly recommend for their attention to detail and fair pricing.
Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com