It’s lunchtime at the Sikh temple in Old Delhi and, although hundreds of people eat here each day, no rupees are required in exchange for the meal. The food is free and seen as much more than just fuel.
When we step inside the temple, after wetting our feet in the shallow pools outside and covering our heads, my eyes are drawn to the two lines of people – I count almost one hundred, but there are far more – sitting cross-legged on the floor. I watch as a young woman places her school books to one side and lifts a large silver plate up in front of her. She is served a spoonful of dahl, followed by a piece of hot roti bread.
Our local guide Varsha begins to explain the significance of the seating arrangement before us: it’s designed to create harmony. In the Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship) everyone is equal: a child sits next to a doctor who sits beside the poverty stricken.
Everyone is welcome to share in a meal, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, gender or financial status. It’s why all the food served is vegetarian, so no one will be turned away. The philosophy behind the meal is both a spiritual and socially significant one, placing the emphasis on community while challenging any caste hierarchies that may exist. Varsha tells us that around 10,000 meals are served here every day.
How is a meal of this scale even possible? What does the kitchen look like? Who does the cooking? Who does the dishes??
Our group of six travellers, from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, is led into the langar (community kitchen) where a mass of volunteers work each day, turning hundreds of kilos of rice, flour and lentils into delicious local cuisine; the air is hot and thick with the scent of spices.
My first impression is that I am in a kitchen that caters exclusively to giants; a man on a step ladder wipes his brow, leaning against a wooden spoon the size of tree branch as he takes a break from stirring the dahl simmering in the largest pot I have ever seen.
Nervous to intrude on the workers, I am grateful to have Varsha to guide us through and explain the various cooking stations. My favourite is the roti table, where a group of women sit shoulder-to-shoulder on tiny stools, laughing together as they roll, knead and cook endless mounds of dough.
One of the volunteers, Am, invites me to sit next to her and join the diligent hands working to keep up with the many mouths arriving in the hall. She is amused by my clumsy handling of the dough and encourages me to mimic her quick technique. Sitting here, I feel welcome and at home; I forget about how busy the streets outside are.
With Varsha’s help, I learn that Am has been volunteering here every day for thirty years, and intends to keep coming until her legs no longer allow her to make the journey from her home in the Old Town. Through her words I come to realise the importance of this tradition; the Langar is not merely a place for sustenance, but a way of creating healthier communities.
After helping in the kitchens, we return to the Gurdwara, where men and women with brooms and buckets of water are cleaning the floor to prepare for the next group of diners, which we will be a part of. I grab a plate and cup and follow everyone else into the huge hall.
Eating in the Gurdwara feels like being at a humble, quiet and incredibly civilised restaurant. A woman smiles from across the row, while the man on my left, seeing me struggle to use my hands as cutlery, silently demonstrates the technique of bending index and middle fingers to scoop up the food, then using your thumb to neatly push it into your mouth. I‘ve never had a meal with so many people from so many different faiths and backgrounds; I consider the importance of connection and am surprised by how strongly it can be felt in something as common as sharing a meal. The ritual of sharing food is an intensely human experience that exists across cultures, time and space.
Visiting the Sikh temples in India is a vivid memory and one that makes me smile each time I return to it. When reflecting on the value of travel, I believe the moments of human connection mean more than all the historical sights we could ever hope to visit. They remind us of the immense power and global existence of community. I went to India to roam the mountains and see the sunset over the Taj Mahal, but when I think about my time here, it is of sipping masala chai with hundreds of strangers and women teaching me how to roll roti.
Interested in exploring India? Check out our full range of small group adventures here.
Feature photo by Damian Pankowiec, Shutterstock.