We’ve had a number of remarkable experiences in India, but one of our favorites so far has been the evening we spent at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a massive Sikh temple complex in Delhi.
Male Sikhs are most recognizable by their distinctive turbans.
A gurudwara (or sometimes gurdwara) is a place of worship for Sikhs; the word literally translates as “door to the guru.” Sikhism is a fascinating religion; it’s one of the youngest major religions and has about 28 million adherents worldwide. It originated in India in the 15th century and broke from Hinduism primarily due to its rejection of the caste system.
The gurudwara in Delhi sees a constant stream of visitors.
As we’ve mentioned, India is an intense place, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed rather quickly here. When your tour guide casually mentions that he’s taking you to dinner at a place that serves fifteen to twenty thousand meals a day, it doesn’t really engender a lot of confidence that the meal will be peaceful or calm. Yet that was exactly how the evening turned out.
Making chapatis for the communal meal.
Everyone is welcome at a Sikh temple, whether or not you adhere to a specific belief system. All gurudwaras in the world have a langar hall, where vegetarian meals are served free of charge to anyone, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. No money ever changes hands, but it is understood that visitors to a gurudwara will participate in “selfless service” in exchange for their meal, which may mean assisting with cooking, cleaning, serving or any other necessary tasks.
Chapati dough waiting to be rolled.
Cooking chapatis on the griddle.
The Sikh gentleman on the left is supervising the cooking of the chapatis.
For our service, we sat down on the floor to roll out hundreds of chapatis, unleavened wheat flatbreads. It was a lovely experience to join the people already in the kitchen; though we don’t speak Hindi, no explanations were necessary. It was simple enough just to watch what others were doing and follow along.
Rather a lot of food is produced in this kitchen.
Vats of delicious dal bubbling away.
Bags of flour and rice in the temple’s pantry.
In addition to volunteering at the temple, most guests also provide an offering of food to the temple’s pantry. Fifty-pound bags of flour and rice line the walls, along with vegetables, lentils and anything else that can be used in the preparation of thousands of daily meals. All the food is strictly vegetarian, and nothing goes to waste.
Cleaning the langar between meal shifts.
Around five hundred people eat in shifts in the langar hall; everyone sits on the floor. Guests queue outside in an orderly manner; in a country where patiently waiting in line doesn’t really happen, we were amazed at how smooth and orderly the process was.
Seating the next round of guests in the hall.
As we filed in, we were given metal trays and shown where to sit. Our guide cautioned us against wasting any food; although you’re welcome to eat as much as you’d like, it is considered hugely disrespectful to take more than you will eat. We enjoyed dal, or spiced lentils, plus a vegetable curry, rice and of course our extremely well-made chapatis.
Volunteers beginning the meal service.
Because there are always more people waiting to eat, everyone basically starts and finishes around the same time, then the hall is cleaned and readied for the next group. The efficiency and elegance of the entire evening was spectacular. The best part was looking around and knowing that the very rich and the very poor and everyone in between were sitting on the floor together, eating the same food. Truly a highlight of our visit to India.
Regardless of gender, everyone is required to cover their heads in the temple. Scarves are provided in case you forgot yours.
After the meal, guests leave the hall, wash their hands and feet (as with most temples, shoes are left at the door) and enter the main temple for worship, chanting and fellowship.
The temple also has a gorgeous reflecting pool.
One of the most interesting parts of our visit happened afterwards, when we were readying to leave. Our group was approached by a young woman with a small child who begged us for money – a very common occurrence in India, particularly for Western tourists. A Sikh immediately saw this and politely but firmly put a stop to it. Our guide explained that since everything is given for free at the temple – food, water, even a safe place to sleep, if necessary – they do not permit any begging on their grounds. This is extremely unusual in India.
Sikh temples can be found all over the world, and a quick Google search will find one near you. If you have the opportunity, please visit your local gurudwara and spend a bit of time making delicious food in the kitchen, then sit down to enjoy it with friends and strangers alike. It is an experience not to be missed!