Guru Nanak Jayanti found me at the Golden Temple in Amritsar one year. I didn't go there out of faith, to celebrate this sacred festival of the Sikhs. I was there on work to do a story on the Guru Ram Das Langar, the gurudwara's community kitchen, which offers free meals every single day to devotees, tourists and curiosity-seekers without consideration of caste and creed. This practice is an institution in Sikhism. Like today, the 547th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak ji, Gurupurab had fallen in November that year too. Winter had already set in Punjab. It was bitingly cold. The mustard fields were yellow and in full bloom. Sikh farmers in toy red tractors toiled in them. And sarson ka saag and makkai di roti were available at every dhaba on the Grand Trunk Road passing through the city.
The langar is enormous, as big as three basketball courts, and as active as ten. Everywhere, people were energetically occupied in some form of cooking.
Kirtans were playing when I entered, barefoot and with my head covered, calming the mind like a simple meditation. Amritsar's chaos outside surrendered before the quietness of this shrine of legends and miracles. The Harmandir Sahib (the Abode of God), popularly known as the Golden Temple, is where the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred writings of the Guru and other revered saints, is the central object of Sikh worship. It is a symbol of the spiritual and historical traditions of the Sikhs. And has been a source of inspiration to the community, and a place of pilgrimage, since the 16th century. It is a two-storied gurudwara rising majestically out of a pond of holy water (Amrit—from which the city got its name), all golden domes, minarets and turrets shining in the morning sunlight and reflecting brightly in the pond. The practice is to enter for the sangat, the holy congregation, then head to the Guru Ram Das Langar for the pangat, the communal meal.
At the Golden Temple, there is no such thing as lunch and dinner hour. It's always mealtime here. The langar is enormous, as big as three basketball courts, and as active as ten. Everywhere, people were energetically occupied in some form of cooking. Men stirred gigantic cauldrons bubbling with dal and sabzi. Hundreds of women sat on the floor rolling out rotis that were being roasted on big, flat hotplates fired by gas. Men with long, hooked rods, sitting like boatmen with oars, expertly flipped the rotis over and scooped them into baskets. Other men picked up these baskets and rushed to the eating area where thousands of visitors sat and ate together.
The langar is named after Guru Ram Das, the fourth guru of the Sikhs and founder of the Harmandir Sahib. It is operational 24/7 and is open to everybody who visits the Golden Temple. It has ten professional cooks and about 20 helpers. The others are volunteers; devotees who, after their religious obligations, sit and roll rotis or cook the dal and sabzi for the day. Nobody gets paid. This is service to God. They are all strangers working together to feed another lot of strangers. At any given time, the Guru Ram Das Langar has rations to last for three months despite feeding 70,000 people every day and on Sundays and festive occasions like Gurupurab and Baisakhi, up to even 2,00,000.
He put a kindly hand on my shoulder and led me to the dining hall saying, "Come eat first, in Amritsar nobody goes to sleep hungry."
That day, I walked around fascinated and unchallenged. Sikhs are among the friendliest people in the world. Nobody frowned at my presence. Nobody turned his or her face away from my camera. Meals are continuously being served here. You collect a plate and glass and take your place in one of the large dining halls. Volunteers bustle about generously serving the dal-sabzi-roti-kheer meal. It is simple and wholesome food. When everybody is served, a big, marching Sikh calls out, "Jo Bole So Nihal..." And thousands of voices respond in one roar, "Sat Sri Akal!" Which means, "Anybody who takes God's name becomes pure." I was busy taking down notes. The marching Sardar asked me, "Have you eaten?" I replied, "No, I am here on work." He put a kindly hand on my shoulder and led me to the dining hall saying, "Come eat first, in Amritsar nobody goes to sleep hungry."