Feeding 100,000 people a day is no mean task.
The deafening sound of clanking metal plates, the manic activity of sewadars serving food to thousands of people seated neatly in rows, while outside the hall another batch of thousands line up for their meals. This is what a day at Guru ka Langar at Amritsar’s Golden Temple looks like.
I am neither religious nor spiritual but here I was, one of the million tourists who had come to seek Babaji’s blessings. In return I wanted to give back to society, even if just for today. I love the purity of community service that makes this place such a revered pilgrimage for Sikhs all over the world.
Pilgrims line outside the halls waiting for the langar
I was told I can simply walk into the langar area and ask around for work. With so many people being fed at a given time, the kitchen is always seeking help from volunteers. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I naturally gravitated to the back of the langar halls to reach the epicenter of all the action - the kitchens.
I was anticipating sewadars (volunteers) to be in a mad rush. But what I saw instead was a certain calmness. The women were peacefully going about their business of rolling chapatis. The men were washing, cleaning, heavy lifting, and doing the usual chores. The intensity that I saw outside was not even remotely close to the stillness inside the kitchen.
Women slathering rotis with dollops of ghee
As I was looking for someone to assign me work, a man asked me to join the cooks in preparing lunch. Paramjit, the head chef at the Temple, was appointed a year ago to handle the langar. His job is to prepare the right quantities of food to feed every mouth that walks through the door, without wasting a morsel. The 26-year-old Sikh gave me a quick tour of the place explaining the process. He works in a 9 to 5 shift and prepares a complete langar that comprises dal (lentils), sabzi (vegetables), kheer (pudding), and rice. He tells me that they have a set menu for the week. “Knowing what to prepare helps us plan our work more efficiently.”
Paramjit showing me around the Golden Temple complex
As we walked through the floors, I could see that apart from hundreds of sewadars who are diligently involved in keeping the kitchens functional, there are also machines that fasten the process and make it possible for them to feed thousands at the same time. The roti machine can churn as many as 5000 an hour!
The more I saw, the more I was impressed. How are they able to prepare so much food and keep serving the endless line of visitors at their doorstep? Paramjit explained that they start preparing meals the night before. The preparation for the first batch of lentils - 400kgs - starts at 12 AM the previous night. This is cooked till 6 AM. The next batch starts at 11 AM, then at 3 PM, and then the final one of 200kgs at 9 PM which usually lasts them through the night due to thinner crowds.
“But, that’s too much food!” I exclaim with disbelief. Paramjit grinned and said at least one hundred thousand people come every day to eat. He also added that the food in Guru ka Langar is not bought but is offered by its devotees. The Temple is run by people and their faith. All the farmers in Punjab donate the first harvest as an offering, believing that this selfless donation will give them healthy crops and prosperous harvest through the season.
The roti machine
By now I was more than ready to do my bit and feed the hungry. Paramjit introduced me to another cook I was going to assist. He guided me to four large cauldrons filled with cut veggies all the way to their neck. I stood at its base, peering down at the container with a heavy ladle dangling from it. The cook told me to start stirring the veggies after every 2-3 minutes and walked away. It was so heavy that for the first few seconds I couldn't get a grip. The cook came back as he saw me struggling with the ladle, took it back from me, and started stirring it in the pot easily.
I stood there, ashamed, and asked for another chance. He handed me the ladle again and this time I managed better. Now it was time to prepare a fresh batch of vegetables. 40kgs sliced onions, 6kgs green chilies, garlic, and ginger. Stirred into 10kgs pure ghee. For tempering we added 3kgs turmeric, 700gms garam masala, 7kgs salt mixed in 300kgs sliced potatoes with 10kgs soybean nuggets. Ingredient after ingredient was transferred into the cauldron and I could already smell all its flavors.
It was now more than three hours that I was in the kitchen. They made me do one task after another, from washing dishes to spinning the ladle to bringing the ingredients. I was running around in all directions, covering my head, wiping beads of sweat from my face and hair. It was 40 degrees inside the kitchen.
Washing up (with a hosepipe)!
Finally, when everything was done, I sat down in front of the sole fan and was given a large serving of Prasad. I thought of it as a generous reward for my day’s labor and thanked the universe.
The magnificent Golden Temple
When I came to Golden Temple that day, I didn’t know what to expect from the world’s largest community kitchen. The dedication, selfless devotion and spirit to serve was beyond anything I had every experienced. I think I can honestly say I have come away a better person from my interactions with the people there.
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By Kanika Gupta
Photographs by Kanika Gupta