At Arizona Sikh Community, Langar Is About More Than A Free Meal

By Carrie Jung
Published: Thursday, January 28, 2016 - 1:20pm
Updated: Monday, February 1, 2016 - 10:17am
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(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Volunteers begin cooking the langar a day before the meal is served.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
On the menu today is a brinjal curry.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Volunteers prepared enough food to feed about 400 people.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Sikh teachings encourage people to eat their meal sitting on the floor to symbolize the idea that no one is of a higher class than another.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)

On any given week, you can find hundreds of people in Glendale gathering for a free meal. On the menu? An array of vegetarian Indian dishes. It’s known as a langar, or free community kitchen, and it’s an important tradition within the Sikh faith. But for many Sikhs in the Valley, the practice goes deeper than just a desire to feed the hungry.

It’s just before 9:00 on a Sunday morning, and the kitchen here at the Nishkam Seva Gurdwara Sahib in Glendale is bustling.

On one end of this Sikh place of worship, five women are making roti. Two roll out the tortilla-like dough and shake off the excess flour. After that, it’s off to the grill. On the other end of the kitchen, three large pots are reaching a rolling boil.

"We are going to make a brinjal curry," explained software engineer Kmalgait Singh as he pushed a handheld blender through the curry mixture. "So we already salted ... and here we are doing the onion."

Singh is one of many volunteers here who are helping to prepare this meal, which will be served after the day’s service.

"Most of these guys always come," he said. "For three or four hours at least."

Singh said that it’s hard to pray and be close to God when you are hungry. But there’s more to langar than just the food. The tradition itself is a symbolic gesture that embodies the Sikh value of equality.

"Regardless of who they are, where they have come, whoever goes there is served food, and this is 365 days of a year, 24 hours, the langar continues," said Dr. Jaswant Sachdev, a local neurologist and member of this Gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship. He explained when it's time to eat, people typically sit in rows on the floor. But he said for those who have injuries or are elderly, it's not mandatory. 

"Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, everybody can come take the food here," added Bhagwant Rangi. She explained for that reason all of the food they serve is vegetarian so that anyone of any faith can eat without worrying about violating a religious principle. 

The langar is a tradition as old as the Sikh religion itself. According to teachings it began with the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, who was given 20 rupees by his father and instructed to find a way to make a profit with the money. Instead, he spent the 20 rupees buying food for hungry people he met throughout the day.

Rangi added the practice of langar also helps strengthen the bonds between the members of the Gurdwara. She said that sense of community is important as the Sikh faith, which is a religious minority in the Valley, has been the target of hate crimes in the past. The most notable being the murder of a Sikh American gas station owner in Mesa shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Sachdev said people have confused those of the Sikh faith with terrorists in the past because of the outward evidence of the religion like turbans and long beards.

"Quite often many of us who keep our beard open are told, 'Osama Bin Laden, go back home'," he said. "And 'You are a terrorist' and that kind of thing."

Back in the kitchen, it’s almost time to start serving. More than anything, Singh said this kind of work just makes him happy.

"It’s more like spreading out the humanity and sharing what you have," he said. "So I think we get pleased doing this. Doing it for our community. That’s common nature for Sikhism."

Updated: 01/30/2016 at 9:00am

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