Arguably the world’s largest free kitchen, the Langar is manned almost entirely by volunteers

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At the langar hall, nobody eats while the food is being served. After every plate in the hall has been filled, a volunteer loudly proclaims, “Jo bole so nihal”, to which the devotees respond, “Sat sri akal!” and only then start eating.

It is lunchtime at the Guru ka Langar at Amritsar’s gleaming Sri Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple, and I can’t quite wrap my head around the numbers. On the average day, 75,000 people eat a free meal here. About 12,000 kilos of flour will be used to make 2,00,000 rotis for the congregation. More than 100 gas cylinders and 5,000 kilos of firewood will be used to prepare the meals.

I am in Amritsar because temple food has always held a special place in my heart. This shrine runs one of the biggest community kitchens in the world, and I want to see how they run the show. So before we head to the langar hall, my guide, Davindarji, takes me on a tour of the kitchen.

We start with a piece of equipment that is obviously the pride of the kitchen: the automated roti-maker, which can churn out 25,000 rotis an hour. I watch fascinated as the machine, accompanied by a high-decibel rattle, rolls out perfect spheres by the dozen. It is pressed into action on days when larger crowds are expected. On other days, volunteers make the rotis by hand.

In fact, because the gurudwara has a small staff, much of the work here is done by volunteers who peel, chop, cook, and serve the thousands of devotees and tourists who flock to the Amritsar’s No. 1 tourist attraction. I see groups of women cleaning and chopping brinjals for the day’s meals. Elsewhere, volunteers use long rods to stir bubbling vats of dal. The air is thick with the pungent aroma of onions, garlic, and spices. Volunteers sanguinely brave the rising steam from the vegetables, dal, and kheer.

The Golden Temple serves langar 24 hours a day. The fare is simple, wholesome, and vegetarian, and prepared by volunteers who toil for hours in the sweltering heat of the gurudwara’s kitchen.

Back in the langar hall, I sit to eat with strangers. In keeping with the tenets of Sikhism, all barriers of religion, caste, and social status are obliterated as diners share a meal as equals, sitting on the floor in a line (pangat). With a call of “Jo bole so nihal… sat sri akal”, we begin eating. Energetic young volunteers rush back and forth ladling dal and vegetables into each plate. The rotis, however, are not served on your plate. Rather, you raise your hands and accept them with humility and piety.

As the pangat starts to leave, more sevadars rush in to carry the plates to the cleaning area. Another team of volunteers begins washing them. Still others mop the floors, keeping the kitchen and the langar halls spotless.

Outside the langar, hot chai is available. As I sip a small cupful, I marvel at the extraordinary feat the temple achieves every day, upholding the ideals of community service so cherished by Sikhism. On my way out, as I collect my footwear from the area where it is stored, I notice that my dusty shoes have been wiped clean. Sikhism emphasises the importance of seva, or service, as a route to negating the ego and finding peace. Looking at the contented faces of the sevadars, that certainly seems true.

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