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‘Concept of equality’ pervades world’s biggest community kitchen

The Golden Temple complex itself gets millions of visitors from across the country and other parts of the world annually

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Bangla Sahib is one of the most famous place of worship of Sikhs in Delhi. Wikimedia Commons
Equality is important for the biggest community. Wikimedia Commons

If there is one big leveller for people, irrespective of their religion, caste, gender, social status or riches, it is the “langar”, or community kitchen, at the Golden Temple complex, where the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Harmandir Sahib, is located, in this city considered holy by Sikhs.

Referred to as the world’s largest community kitchen, the Sri Guru Ram Das Jee Langar Hall of the Golden Temple complex is unique in several aspects. On an average, it feeds over 100,000 people daily — from children to old people — from all religions, castes, regions, countries; and people from varied social, economic and political backgrounds.

“It is a 24×7 operation that carries on day and night all 365 days of the year. This has been going on for centuries, since the concept of langar was introduced by Guru Nanak Dev (the first Guru of the Sikh religion and its founder; born 1469) and propagated by other Gurus,” Wazir Singh, senior in-charge of the langar preparation, told IANS here.

Unlike other government organisations and institutions in India, there are no provisions for reservations based on caste or religion. Wikimedia commons
The Golden Temple complex provides food for many. Wikimedia Commons

At any given point of the day or night, the place is not only swarmed by devotees wanting to partake what is considered as blessed by service but by hundreds of volunteers who are ever-so-ready to be part of the voluntary cooking and serving process. The langar food is even sent thrice daily to the two Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)-run hospitals in Amritsar, especially to a ward where treatment of mentally-ill patients and drug-addicts is being carried out. The SGPC is tasked with the management all Sikh shrines.

“We have over 500 volunteer employees. The sangat (community) also pitches in with great enthusiasm daily. People come from across Punjab on trucks and tractor-trolleys — even other states, different countries — to help in this massive exercise of making and serving food. Several local residents, including women, have been coming here for years. People take time out of their government and private jobs to serve here, irrespective of their religion or caste. We welcome everyone with love,” Wazir Singh, speaking in Punjabi, pointed out, even as he continued to issue instructions to staffers involved in cooking the langar.

The langar is all vegetarian — comprising mainly of dal (maa-chole ki dal), rice (slightly salted for taste), chapattis, achar (pickle) and a vegetable, along with something sweet (kheer or prasad). In the morning, the “chai langar” comprises of tea and rusk.

The devotees sit down on the matted floor inside the langar hall in rows. To manage the huge rush, the SGPC volunteers allow only a few hundred to enter the hall at one time. The whole operation is carried out in a meticulous manner as a daily routine.

Also Read: ‘Government chalked out 1984 anti-Sikh genocide’

“The whole exercise is quite enormous but it goes on, with the blessings of the almighty, seamlessly. The daily expense is around Rs 15 lakh. We use 100 quintals (100 kg) rice and up to 30 kg (each) of dal and vegetables daily. Over 100 LPG cylinders (domestic size) are used daily for the cooking along with hundreds of kilograms of firewood for the traditional cooking. Nearly 250 kg of ‘desi ghee’ (clarified butter) is used in the cooking. We have over three lakh steel plates. We can serve 10 lakh (one million) people in a day,” Gurpreet Singh, in-charge of the kitchen, told IANS. SGPC functionaries pointed out that 30,000-35,000 people from Amritsar and nearby areas are daily visitors to the shrine and partake langar thrice. Many of these are migrants from other states and poor people who cannot afford meals.

“Our doors are open for everyone without discrimination. We follow the concept of equality here,” said Amrit Pal Singh, a SGPC official at the Information Office. The chapattis, in the thousands, are made on eight chapatti-making machines and even by hand by women and men volunteers. The steel utensils (plates, glasses and spoons), used by devotees, also numbering in lakhs, are washed voluntarily by the devotees themselves or by volunteers.

“The shrine complex has such a spiritual attraction about it. The langar served here leaves you satisfied in many aspects. The whole experience touches your soul,” Ramesh Goyal, a devotee from Bathinda, said.

“I had always heard about this shrine. Today, what I experienced was heavenly. The langar service is unparalleled in any religion. They do it with so much devotion and humility despite such huge crowds. It is unimaginable,” Tariq Ahmed, who had come here with his family from Patna in Bihar, told IANS. Anup Singh, a young Sikh devotee from Amritsar, often accompanies his grandparents and parents to the shrine.

Sikh Community, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh
Children belonging to Sikh Community, Wikimedia Commons 

“I love to serve chapattis to the people having langar. It is a very satisfying and fulfilling experience,” he said. “The whole exercise is carried out selflessly. It is a big task but everything is carried out smoothly. We keep introducing changes depending on the needs of the devotees,” Roop Singh, Chief Secretary of the SGPC, told IANS.

The SGPC, known as the mini-parliament of Sikh religion, manages the Golden Temple complex and gurdwaras across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. It has an annual budget of over Rs 1,100 crore, mostly from donations at the gurdwaras.

The Golden Temple complex itself gets millions of visitors from across the country and other parts of the world annually. The strong Sikh diaspora in other countries like United States, Britain and Canada actively contributes to the shrine and visits it whenever they can. IANS

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Indian Women Believe Struggle for Equality Should Not Be Staged in Temples

Protestors block traffic and shout slogans reacting to reports of two women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala temple, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, Jan. 2, 2019

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Kanaka Durga, 39, one of two Indian women to enter Sabarimala temple which traditionally bans the entry of women of menstrual age, is seen at a hospital in Manjeri town in the southern state of Kerala, India, January 15, 2019.

“From my childhood I believe that those rituals should be saved and I don’t think those beliefs should be legalized,” said Radhika Nair, an economics postgraduate student as she emerged from viewing an art exhibition in Kochi in Kerala state.

She is referring to the centuries-old custom that barred women between the ages of 10 and 50 from climbing the 18 golden steps that lead into Sabarimala, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. A raging controversy has centered on the hilltop temple in Kerala after the Supreme Court lifted that ban, saying it constitutes gender discrimination. The order was seen as a huge step for women’s equality and a blow to entrenched patriarchal traditions.

But in India’s most literate state, lying on its southern tip, the view is far more complex. In towns and cities, many ordinary women, young and old, are vehement that temples are not the place to stage the battle for gender equality and want the traditions in Sabarimala to be left undisturbed. The handful that take a more liberal view prefer not to be quoted on an issue that has raised strong emotions – not just among political parties who have waded into the controversy, but in ordinary households.

Tradition 

Women of menstruating age are barred from the temple because age-old belief holds it would dishonor the temple’s deity Lord Ayyappa, believed to be a celibate. Vowing to preserve that tradition in defiance of the top court’s order, devotees forced the handful of women who approached the temple to turn back until two slipped in undetected with a plains clothes police escort earlier this month. As violent protests erupted, they went into hiding and needed police protection for days.

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Kanaka Durga, 39, one of two Indian women to enter Sabarimala temple which traditionally bans the entry of women of menstrual age, is seen at a hospital in Manjeri town in the southern state of Kerala, India, January 15, 2019.

​39-year-old Kanakadurga, who returned home in mid-January, had to be hospitalized after she was allegedly attacked by her mother-in-law and was later locked out of the house. She is living in a government shelter. Her brother has asked her to apologize to devotees. 40-year-old Bindu Ammini’s family has been more supportive and she is back at her job as a law professor.

On the streets of Kerala, not many are willing to defend the temple visit of the two and dismiss them as activists. 60-year-old Vijay Lakshi, who is a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, said that by entering the shrine, they proved that they were not genuine believers. Then why are they going there? As per our opinion women should not go to Sabarimala.”

Ammini told VOA she visited the temple to exercise her constitutional right to equality. “This is not question of activist and devotee. In India rule of law is practiced. All people in India have duty to obey constitution and other laws.”

But what finds wide resonance in Kerala is the sole dissenting voice on the top court’s five-judge bench that delivered the landmark verdict. Indu Malhotra, the only woman judge on the panel had said that “issues of deep religious sentiments should not ordinarily be interfered by the court,” and religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of the right to equality.

“I am not that much devoted to God, I am not that much against God also. I am a common person with all the feelings,” says Smita Subhash, a school principal. “But when we are living in a particular society, it is better that we have to follow the rules and regulations of that society, that is very important.”

Some point out that Kerala is home to a temple that does not allow men on certain days. Many non-Hindus also want religious customs to be treated as sacrosanct. “Leave Sabarimala as it was before,” said Kochi resident, Mary Bosco. “It is not the place for showing women empowerment. It is not a place to make problems, issues.”

​Ammini feels differently and said, “Gender inequality is also part of religion” and needs legal redress. The man who facilitated her visit to Sabarimala by launching an online group for women who wanted to enter, Shreyas Kanaran, also asserts that equal access for women into religious spaces is an important facet of ushering in social reform. “We have to be patient. A mindset change needs time,” he says.

But it is difficult to find women who openly favor the entry of women in Sabarimala in a state where, although they are more educated compared to women in many other parts of the country, the hold of conservatism is also strong.

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Kanaka Durga, 39 (L) and Bindu Ammini, 40, the first women to enter Sabarimala temple which traditionally bans the entry of women of menstrual age, pose for a photo on the outskirts of Kochi, India, January 10, 2019.

Two women sitting in a café say they don’t care whether women enter or stay away from Sabarimala and believe that more important issues such as rape should be the focus of governments and society. But they don’t want to be quoted because their husbands and in-laws would be angry.

The final legal word on the controversy has yet to be pronounced. The Supreme Court is due to hear petitions seeking a review of its judgment but it remains to be seen whether it takes a second look at the contentious issue or lets the earlier verdict stand.

Also Read- Pakistan Appoints its First Ever Female Hindu Civil Judge

Either way, strong passions will continue to swirl on the issue in Kerala, and for the time being, the voice of those who favor retaining the traditions at Sabarimala is much louder. That means for some time to come the millions of devotees dressed in black who head to the temple every year after a tough 41-day penance, will continue to be men.

Women like Radhika Nair have made up their minds. “We are ready to wait. I don’t need to go there between these 10 to 50 years.” (VOA)