Travelling can quickly become a self-indulgent pursuit. After all, every day is all about you –your itinerary, where you will eat, what you will experience/buy/visit. Everyone is there to service your needs and they remind you of this fact. Luckily, in India, there are always acts of kindness and struggle that have a way of grounding you, if not making you swear off gratuitous consumerism and commit yourself to a monastic lifestyle. In the next life of course.
If you happen to be in need of such a lesson, you should visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar and, more specifically, the Langar – the free kitchen which serves delicious hot vegetarian meals to over 70 000 people every day. All day. And that’s (mostly and quite literally) at the hands of volunteers – people (mainly Sikhs) performing seva (acts of service).
It should be a logistical nightmare, the stuff of reality TV shows, where irate chefs throw pots at venue managers who take it out on event planners. Because, let’s face it, getting 75 000 people fed is no joke. Washing that many dishes and utensils is no laughing matter. Never mind the logistics around transporting, storing and transforming 100 gas cylinders, 100 quintal of wheat flour, 5000l of milk, and the like into edible goods on a daily basis.
Having spent a week there, eating nearly two meals a day, I can tell you that this kitchen is one well-oiled machine, greased by love and fuelled by a lot of hard work from volunteers who sincerely do it from a place of love. Or at least that is what their faces radiate every time they usher you into one of the two serving halls and onto long strips of hessian runners, scoop ladles of dhal from a bucket or drop two chapattis into your two hands, already poised in prayer mode.
It’s not a forced act. You really are grateful and humbled by the kindness and generosity that surrounds you as you sit quietly next to 50 strangers looking across a sea of 20 rows wondering where they come from or what brings them here. Are they pilgrim Sikhs? Local Punjabis? People in need of a free meal? You can deduce as much as you want because no one here cares to reduce you to any identifiers. Like you, everyone is welcomed into these halls, everyone treated to the same kindness and food, no matter their religion, caste, race, gender or status. You leave your identity at the door, along with your shoes and uncovered head. In here, you are all simple bare-footed travellers eating a simple meal alone, together.
The efficiency and speed of this operation relies on a vast support network of volunteers and some employees that have every angle and utensil of this production line covered. When you enter the area you are met by one person handing you a plate from his trolley, another hands you a bowl, another a spoon. When you leave you give someone your dirty spoon and hand your bowl and plate to a row of volunteers who scrape and separate the two items and toss them into a container with the speed and accuracy of a bowler on a cricket pitch.
The washing area is equally impressive with rows of metal troughs, each serviced by a drain below and a metal drying rack above, where volunteers wash the items being dumped into their trough. These items are then transferred to another row of the same, where volunteers rinse each item. A second rinse happens in the same manner in the next row until these items are finally stacked and packed in the corner, where someone will transfer the trolleys to the people that hand them out again.
A lot of this volunteer operation happens out in the open, from the teams of people peeling garlic or chopping onions to the duos serving chai in the opposite corner. So you get to observe the behaviour and attitude of the volunteers. I never saw anyone begrudged by their duties or watching the clock. Quite the opposite. I witnessed backslapping and laughter, saw smiles being passed around like the bowls they were scrubbing clean. The ultimate effect of all this goodwill a strange one. It makes you want to roll up your sleeves and take on a task that you always avoid in your own home – washing up. Which is what I did. It was as easy as walking into the washing area and slipping on a scouring brush over my hands. People stared, but out of fascination and curiosity, a lesson I learnt with the many “which country?” questions that were fielded over the trough at me. I was always the only Westerner at the trough. And not many more came through the eating halls either, which is less a testament to the amount of travellers as it is to the number of local Indians who visit the temple every day and every year.
The kitchen is an extension of the energy and warmth that radiates from the Golden Temple – itself a magnificent building surrounded by gleaming white marble.
Walking the marble perimeter with your bare feet, you witness people taking a dip in the holy waters (or immortal nectar) surrounding the golden temple itself, but no washing with soap is allowed. The men strip to their undershorts, their turbans still on, many with daggers sticking out the side. They grab the metal chains and lower themselves into the cold holy water, dipping a few times. Not the head, never the head. You won’t see the women doing this, out in the open. Two rectangular buildings on the water edge allow women to do this in private, which they do.
In winter the marble floors are cold receptors to your bare feet. Even this they have thought of, which is why the entire quad and outside areas have strips of long hallway runners, some made of green felt, like the kind you would find on a bridge or poker table. The other a heavier brown rattan or grass ones that get heavy when wet. They are constantly being switched out, dry ones for wet ones, clean ones for dirty ones. In fact there isn’t a second of the day that you don’t see people cleaning the temple area, from the men sweeping or polishing the marble to the volunteers cleaning the bowls that serve you water at every corner of the quad and the men wading, waist deep, in the holy waters, cleaning the steps with a long pole and sieve as the giant koi fish swim by, doing their best to filter the surrounding waters.
This is not an experiment in forced mass community service. It’s a place where people are happy to serve without need for financial remuneration or public acknowledgement. Everyone here is in some way in service of the temple and everyone seems happy to be of service to it. It is an honour, not a duty. A privilege not a punishment.
A visit to the Golden Temple might not inspire you to seek or change your faith, but it definitely makes you question your faith in the capitalistic model of service and perhaps even renew your faith in the human one.
Top tip: You can also stay (free) at the Golden Temple (in the building called Sri Guru Ram Das Niwas). Foreign travellers have been allocated four simple rooms, each with three beds pushed together and lockers for your bags (bring your own locks). The rooms are very basic and you share a bathroom, but then this simplicity is all part of the pilgrim experience and the excellent location (right next to the free kitchen and Golden Temple) enables you to spend a lot of time at the Golden Temple complex, which is exactly the point.