Langar for all humanity

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 24 August 2015

Langar is about embracing every human, about feeding everyone, no matter your faith, ethnicity, gender or otherwise, all are welcome to partake in our community lunch.

Little is known about our Wellington Sikh community which first opened its temple doors to the public with the official launch of their Gurdwara (temple) in 1997 in Porirua East.

After their Sunday prayers, Lynda Chanwai-Earle joins the community as they explain langar and the humanitarian philosophies behind this shared lunch - created for the masses so no one will go hungry.

I’m learning more when I attend their langar after their Sunday prayers – observing food preparation by all members of the community, old and young, male and female.

It’s Sunday morning and the busy clatter of dishes along with fragrant aromas of curry greets you upon arrival. Langar is the Punjabi term used in the Sikh faith for “community kitchen” where food is served in a Gurdwara to all visitors for free and right now langar is being prepared in the large kitchen that belongs to the New Zealand Sikh Society – Wellington branch.

The Sikh langar, or free kitchen, was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak to uphold the principle of equality between all people, revolutionary in the caste-ordered society of 16th-century India where Sikhism began. The tradition of langar embraces the ethics of sharing, community and oneness of all humankind.

The point about langar is that we serve selflessly, we try to give as much as we can; ingredients, money or if you don’t have money you just help out in the kitchen – Urwashi Singh, Committee Member of the NZ Sikh Society, Wellington Inc.

Sikh’s hail from Punjab, Northern India and have been living in NZ over 100 years. Recently their population has grown to almost 20,000, mostly based in Auckland, but around 1500 Sikhs live in the Wellington region.

300 Roti for today's langer

300 Roti for today's langer. Photo: RNZ/ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

I am literally being passed from one generous guide to the next as what feels like the whole Sikh community show me the types of vegetarian dishes prepared and most importantly explain the humanitarian philosophies behind their meal – created for the masses so no one will go hungry.

At the langar, only vegetarian food is served (and absolutely no alcohol) to ensure that all people, regardless of diet, can eat.

I am told that food will be served to all humanity regardless of faith, background age, ethnicity, gender or social status.

Urwashi Singh is a committee member of the New Zealand Sikh Society – Wellington. Her family help out with food preparation every Sunday.

She introduces me to the team gathered in the kitchen, a large group of men and women working behind the stoves and at the sinks.

The pat-pat-pat of balls of roti dough as they’re flipped between each hand and flattened looks easy but each person here will have been practicing to make roti from the time they first learned to walk.

Taught by their parents, roti making is a real Indian tradition and rotis are staple part of the diet like rice is to the Chinese.

Nirmal Singh is also a committee member of Wellington’s Sikh Society. He explains the philosophies behind langar while extra roti and chai tea is prepared for the people who have served and not yet eaten.

Nirmal’s wife Pritpal Singh is helping young men cook the rising roti pancakes, making sure the pancakes don’t burn as they flatten the air bubbles out.

Chai tea brewing.

Chai tea brewing. Photo: RNZ/ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Alongside Pritpal broad shouldered Jaspinder Singh is being teased for being the star chai tea maker. Apparently he makes more chai at the langar than he does for his wife at home. He shows me the recipe as he crushes the tea masalas in a mortar and pestle; large and small cardamom pods, cloves, fennel seeds and cinnamon.

Jaspinder tosses the spices, many tea bags, sugar and lots of water into a large pot and gets the chai brewing before adding almost equal parts milk.

The brewing chai is brought to the boil around four times before the fragrant, sweet and hot chai is ready and gratefully received by the hard working helpers.

He is saying that his chai tea is the best in the world!

In the gurdwara, after the morning prayers the final ritual is the taking of prashad (small offering of sweet semolina).  Then the community move towards the adjoining large hall space. Mats for seating have been laid in lengths, next to plastic strips for the food.

Giving of prashad

Giving of prashad. Photo: RNZ/ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

There are no tables. Everyone will be seated in lines (pangat) cross legged on the floor next to each other, no matter the gender, age or social standing. This is to demonstrate the etiquette of the egalitarian community.Unsure of the reasons behind some of the rituals Urwashi kindly explains to me what one needs to be mindful of before entering the temple or gurdwara;

It is always shoes off and head covered to show respect for our Guru. The Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Book) is a live and sacred person to us, so we show respect for the Guru Granth Sahib as we would for our elders.

Before anyone sits to eat waheguru or prayers of gratitude are expressed for the food that may go something like this;

S Krishna Singh Ji Khlasa,
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa!
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Sat Sri Akal!

I’m seated next to Urwashi while young men from the community serve dishes. Urwashi explains what is being served into the large platters in front of us; “As minimum there is one lentil curry, one mixed vegetable curry, one raita (yoghurt based condiment with sliced cucumber), salad, one sweet rice desert along with roti/chapati and rice.”

Urwashi tells me that no one will go hungry as long as langar is available;

The langar is open to everyone, even if the langar is finished we are very much willing to open the kitchen again and feed that person, because we see God in that person.