Guru Ka Langar (literally, langar or refectory of the Guru) is a community kitchen run in the name of the Guru. It is usually attached to a gurdwara. Langar, a Persian word, means ‘an almshouse’, ‘an asylum for the poor and the destitute’, ‘a public kitchen kept by a great man for his followers and dependants, holy persons and the needy.’ Some scholars trace the word langar to Sanskrit analgrh (cooking place). In Persian, the specific term langar has been in use in an identical sense. In addition to the word itself, the institution of langar is also traceable in the Persian tradition. Langars were a common feature of the Sufi centres in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Even today some dargahs, or shrines commemorating Sufi saints, run langars, like Khwaja Mu’in ud-Din Chishti’s at Ajmer.
The principle of Guru Ka Langar is so important that even when the ruler of India Emperor Akbar visited Guru Amar Das Ji, he too sat in the pangat to take Langar before he was allowed to see Guru Ji. Hence the mighty ruler of India also sat amongst the common people as an equal and had the same simple food. So impressed was he by the Langar that he offered a great jagir (a great amount of land and wealth) as a contribution to it’s maintenance. As the Mahima Prakash records, the Emperor refused to step on the silks spread out for him by his servants when going to call on the Guru. He turned aside the lining with his own hands and walked to the Guru’s presence barefoot. The Guru would not accept the Emperor’s offer of the jagir, so Akbar offered it as a wedding present for the Guru’s daughter. It is believed that the gifted land is today, the city of Amritsar.
When President Nasser of Egypt visited the Golden Temple he was so touched to see so many Kashmiri Muslims, Hindu’s, Christians and Sikhs sitting together to eat in the Langar that his party left all the money they carried with them as a contribution to it’s running
The Langar is run by sevadars ‘voluntary selfless’ Sikhs and others who wish to help. It is a community kitchen and anybody can help in it’s running. This function of Sewa brings a community feeling in the persons mind and destroy their ego and the feeling of “I” or “me” by the performing of this valuable service to humanity.
The langar continued to perform its distinctive role in days of the direst persecution. Bands of Sikhs wandering in deserts and jungles would cook whatever they could get, and sit in a pangat to share it equally. Later, when the Sikhs came into power, the institution of langar was further consolidated because of increased number of gurdwaras running the langar, and assignment of jagirs to gurdwaras for this purpose.
Rules concerning the tradition of Langar – The Langar must be:
1. Simple and vegetarian
2. Prepared by devotees who recite Gurbani while preparing the langar
3. Served after performing Ardas
4. Distributed in Pangat without any prejudice or discrimination
5. Fresh, clean and hygienically prepared
Importance of Langar to Sikhism
Bhai Desa Singh in his Rehitnama says, “A Sikh who is well to do must look to the needs of a poor neighbour. Whenever he meets a traveller or a pilgrim from a foreign country, he must serve him devotedly.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh made grants of jagirs to gurdwaras for the maintenance of langars. Similar endowments were created by other Sikh rulers as well. Today, practically every gurdwara has a langar supported by the community in general. In smaller gurdwaras cooked food received from different households may comprise the langar. In any case, no pilgrim or visitor will miss food at meal time in a gurdwara. Sharing a common meal sitting in a pangat is for a Sikh an act of piety. So is his participation in cooking or serving food in the langar and in cleaning the used dishes. The Sikh ideal of charity is essentially social in conception. A Sikh is under a religious obligation to contribute one-tenth of his earning for the welfare of the community. He must also contribute the service of his hands whenever he can, that rendered in a langar being the most meritorious.
“Keep the langar ever open” are reported to have been the last words of Guru Gobind Singh spoken to Bhai Santokh Singh before he passed away at Nanded. One of the lines in his Dasam Granth reads: “Deg tegh jag me dou chalai—may langar (charity) and sword (instrument of securing justice) together prevail in the world.” The first Sikh coin minted in the eighteenth century carried the Persian maxim: “Deg tegh fateh—may langar and sword be ever triumphant.”
An essential part of the gurudwara is the Langar, or free kitchen. Here the food is cooked by sevadars and is served without discrimination to all. After the Sadh Sangat has participated in any ceremony, they are served the Guru’s Langar. It was inspired by Guru Nanak’s act of serving food to wandering holy men when given money by his father to strike a good bargain. The practice of serving food to all was started with Guru Nanak’s Sikhs at Kartarpur.
The Guru’s Langar is always vegetarian, and traditionally is made up of simple, nourishing food. Strict rules of hygiene and cleanliness are important when preparing the Langar (i.e., washed hands, never tasting it while cooking). Individuals with communicable diseases should not participate in the preparation of Langar. It is also suggested that
Once Guru Gobind Singh, disguised as an ordinary pilgrim, made a surprise check of the langars at Anandpur. He discovered that Bhai Nand Lal’s langar was the best maintained. He complimented him and asked others to emulate his standards of dedication and service. One of Guru Gobind Singh’s commandments was that a Sikh visiting another Sikh’s door must be served food, without hesitation or delay. Another of his sayings ran: “Gharib da munh guru ki golak hai — to feed a hungry mouth is to feed the Guru.” This spirit of common sharing and of mutual co-operation and service was the underlying principle of the Sikh tradition of langar.
Guru Nanak and his successors attached a great deal of importance to langar and it became, in their hands, a potent means of social reform. The former gave it the central place in the dharamsala he established at Kartarpur at the end of his preaching tours. He worked on his farm to provide for himself and for his family and to contribute his share to the common langar.
He had such of his disciples as could afford to set up dharamsalas and langars. Among them were ‘Sajjan Thag, then lost to godly ways, and a wealthy nobleman, Malik Bhago, both of whom had converted to his message. Bhumia, formerly a dacoit, was asked by Guru Nanak to turn his kitchen into a langar in the name of God. A condition was laid upon Raja Shivnabh of Sangladip (Sri Lanka) that he open a langar before he could see him (Guru Nanak). The Raja, it is said, happily complied.
Guru Angad, Nanak II, further extended the scope of the institution. He helped with cooking and serving in the Langar at Khadoor Sahib. His wife, Mata Khivi, looked after the pilgrims and visitors with the utmost attention. Such was her dedication to work in the langar that it came to be known after her name as Mata Khivi ji ka Langar. The Var by Satta and Balvand also applauds Guru Amar Das’s langar wherein “ghee and flour abounded.” In spite of rich variety of food served in his langar, Guru Amar Das ate a simple meal earned by the labour of his own hands. “What was received from the disciples was consumed the same day and nothing was saved for the morrow.” Contributing towards the Guru ka Langar became an established custom for the Sikhs. Partaking of food in Guru Ka Langar was made a condition for disciples and visitors before they could see the Guru. Guru Amar Das’s injunction was: “pahile pangat pachhe sangat”—first comes eating together, and then meeting together.” Langar thus gave practical expression to the notion of equality.
At Goindwal, during the time of Guru Amar Das Ji a rule was instituted that anyone who wanted to have a meeting with the Guru (receive his Darshan) would have to eat food from the Langar. Even when the Emperor of India, Akbar came to see Guru Amar Das, he sat in pangat (where Langar is served) before meeting the Guru. From that time forward, at Goindwal, Langar was served 24 hours a day.
Bhai Jetha, who came into spiritual succession as Guru Ram Das, served food in Guru Amar Das’s langar, brought firewood from the forest and drew water from the well. By such deeds of devoted service, he gained enlightenment and became worthy of the confidence of Guru Amar Das. Langar served to train the disciples in seva and to overcome class distinctions.
The institution of langar had become an integral part of the Sikh movement by now and, with the increase in its numbers, it gained further popularity and strength. With the development under Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan of Amritsar as the central seat of the Sikh faith, the capacity of the local Guru ka Langar increased manifold. Sikhs came from far-off places to see their Guru and to lend a hand with the construction work. They were all served food in Guru ka Langar.
Bhai Manjh, was was attracted to Sikhism from a Muslim sect, engaged himself in serving the Guru’s langar by fetching fuel wood from the nearby jungle. Once, due to inclement weather, he fell into a well whilst carrying wood on his head. On hearing this, the Guru Arjan Dev rushed to the well with necessary equipment. When the ropes were lowered, Bhai Manjh requested the Guru to draw out the fuel wood first, as he considered dry wood more essential than himself. It was done, and when Bhai Manjh was drawn out, the Guru embraced him in his wet clothes blessing him, “Manjh is the Guru’s beloved. Whosoever keeps his company shall be redeemed.”
Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur travelled extensively in north and northeast India. This led to the establishment of many new sangats. Each sangat meant an additional langar. In the reign of Guru Gobind Singh, the institution of langar acquired further significance. At Anandpur, the new seat of Sikhism, a number of langars were in existence, each under the supervision of a devoted and pious Sikh. Food was available in these langars day and night.
When preparing food for the Langar, the mouth and nose will be covered by a piece of cloth known as a “parna”. Also during the preparation due regard is made to purity, hygiene and cleanliness, the sevadars (selfless workers) will normally utter Gurbani and refrain from speaking if possible. When the Langar is ready, a small portion of each of the dishes is placed in a plate or bowls and placed in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and a prayer called the Ardas is performed. The Ardas is a petition to God; a prayer to thank the Creators for all His gifts and blessings. A steel kirpan is passed through each item of food, after the “Guru-prashad” has been blessed. The blessing of the Langar with Ardas can be done anywhere, in case the Langar needs to be served before the completion of the Gurdwara ceremony. The Langar is not eaten until the Ardas has been recited. After the Ardas is completed, each item of food is returned back to its original pot or container. It is said that the blessings of the “holy” food are thus passed to the entire Sangat through the Langar.
When serving the Langar, the servers must observe strict rules of cleanliness and hygiene. Servers should not touch the serving utensils to the plates of those they serve. When serving foods by hand, such as chapattis or fruit, the servers’ hands should not touch the hand or plate of those they are serving. Those serving should wait until all others have been completely served before they sit down to eat themselves. It is advisable not to leave any leftovers.
Since some Sikhs believe that it is against the basics of Sikhi to eat meat, fish or eggs, hence non-vegetarian foods of this sort is neither served nor brought onto the Gurdwara premises. Others believe that the reason vegetarian food is served in Gurdwaras is so that people of all backgrounds can consume the food without any anxiety about their particular dietary requirement and to promote complete equality among all the peoples of the world. Alcoholic and narcotic substances are stringently against the Sikh diet, hence these with any meat products are strictly not allowed on Gurdwara premises.
A Means of Social Reform
Community kitchens came into existence with the Sangat or holy fellowships of disciples which sprang up at many places in his time. Sikhs sat in pangat (literally a row) without distinctions of caste or status, to share a common meal prepared in the langar. Besides the kitchen where the food was cooked, langar stood for the victuals as well as for the hall where these were eaten. The disciples brought the offerings and contributed the labour of their hands to prepare and serve the food. The institution of Langar had thus demolished the long established caste barriers and gender prejudices of the time. Gurbani be recited during the preparation.
High caste Brahmins would eat from the hands of low caste Sudar and vice-versa. This practise, slowly overcame the century old established prejudices ingrained in the minds of common people of the land. Before the establishment of Langar, a Brahmin would not eat in the presence of a low caste person and was thought a bad omen if a low caste person was to enter a room where the high caste Brahmin was eating. The institution of Langar removed all these barriers in the culture of Northern India.
“SUCH IS THE VIRTUE IN A LANGAR—TO FEED WITH LOVE –A BLESSING INDEED-THE FOOD AND THE FLAVOURS OF LANGAR CANNOT BE SAVOURED ANYWHERE ELSE -I CAN ASSURE YOU THAT”