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Guru Ka Langar
– Free Food Kitchen –

Jagjit Singh*

I remember that in 2001, when I was in Canada, I got an opportunity to listen to the Mayor of Mississauga Madam Hazel McCallion an old lady in her eighties, in Dixie Khalsa Darbar Gurdwara. She was there in connection with the post September 11 riots or anti Sikh and anti South Asian incidents in Canada. While expressing her solidarity with the affected people, she was so impressed about the Guru ka langar that she said she had never heard of any religion or congregation where free food was served to so many people at a time. In mid 2002, I happened to see the superb arrangements made and system developed for Guru ka langar in Black Burn Gurdwara in Melbourne, Australia. In between I made some insight into the lives of our revered Guru Sahibs and was quite astonished to note the high esteem in which the system was maintained by all of them and how almost each one made a distinctive contribution or addition to this institution started by Guru Nanak Dev Sahib.

Guru Nanak Dev as every one knows, our First Guru, had some unique and distinctive features since his advent on this earth. Only one feature regarding ‘langar’ deserves mention here as we the Sikhs acknowledge the same as the very first step, which started the system of free kitchen in our community. When he came of age, his father ‘Pita Kalu’, sent him with 20 Rupees to do some bargain in some distant market and for doing some business. The sum of 20 Rupees, in those good old days, more than five hundred years ago, was not a paltry amount. On the way, while going for the bargain, Guru Nanak saw some saints, fakirs who were hungry. He purchased the provisions, and served food to all. Somebody complained to his father about spending his hard earned money in this fashion by his son. He became furious, lost his temper and it is said, ran after him and slapped him on the face. The elder sister of Guru Nanak, Bibi Nanki, who had an insight into the qualities of her younger brother wept and requested her father not to treat him so as he was not an ordinary person.

Guru ka langar, i.e., the system of serving free food to the needy started from this incident and is continuing till date. It is often said by missionaries that the sum of twenty Rupees put by Guru Nanak, in this langar will never come to an end and shall remain a perennial source of funds for the purpose. After the completion of his four long sojourns (Udasis) to distant places in India and abroad, spread over a period of around twelve years, when he settled at Kartarpur, he resumed his normal worldly family life including farming. But during this period, which was also spread into about 18 years, he continued his spiritual mission with full zeal. People were coming to him from far off places to listen to his sermons and food was served freely to all irrespective of religion, caste or creed either out of the hard income of Guru Nanak Sahib himself or out of the offerings made by the Sikh sewaks.

Guru Angad Sahib, the 2nd Nanak carried forward the system in a more organized and systematic way. Bhai Lehna, Guru Angad later, an embodiment of service and dedication to Guru Nanak, was well conversant with the system of Guru Nanak Sahib, as he was his most devout pupil. On his succession to Guru Gaddi, he shifted his seat of activity from Kartar Pur to Khadur Sahib, as per the dictate of Guru Nanak. People continued to come to him from far and near. While he served the people with the Bani of Guru Nanak, and with his own compositions and sermons, his wife, Mother Khivi, personally took the charge upon herself of supervising the Langar. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that in the entire Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, there is mention of only one Guru’s wife and that is of Mother Khivi. Bhatt Balwand, while narrating the characteristics, qualities and contribution of Guru Angad Dev, specifically mentioned Mother Khivi, the pious lady. He described her as a tree whose leaves gave a dense shade of love. She served and distributed rich food in Langar, in the form of sweets and having nectar-like taste, kheer, prepared in butter oil (ghee). Gursikhs were very happy with her attitude of service, while the ‘manmukhs’ felt desperate:

blvMf KIvI nyk jn ijsu bhuqI Cwau pqRwlI ]
lµgir dauliq vMfIAY rsu AMimRqu KIir iGAwlI ]
gurisKw ky muK aujly mnmuK QIey prwlI ]
pey kbUlu KsMm nwil jW Gwl mrdI GwlI ]
mwqw KIvI shu soie ijin goie auTwlI ]
(Guru Granth Sahib, p 967)

Guru Amar Das, the Third Nanak, set very important and bold landmarks in the institution of Langar. He used this not only as a device for satiating the appetite of the Sikhs, but directed all the Sikhs, who wanted to attend the congregation, ‘his darbar’, to have their meal in the langar, before coming to him. “Pehale Pangat, Paache Sangat’, was the mandatory rule, and no deviation of the same was allowed. It is recorded that even Emperor Akbar, who came to have a glimpse (darshan) of him, was not allowed entry, untill he had his food while sitting along with the masses. Guru Amar Das created ‘Baoli’, at Goindwal Sahib, with an eye on removing the caste differences amongst the Gursikhs, used langar, as a system of making all of them sit together and share whatever was prepared in langar. Thus, the attack on caste system, started by Guru Nanak, was pursued with a new vigour, under the institution of langar and bath system. He had one thing more for the langar. Whatever provisions were coming to him for preparing langar, he did not keep anything for the next day. He had told his close followers and the ‘sevaks’, attending on him that God would send afresh on the next morning. So every day on fresh receipts of the stores, the langar was prepared and it proved to be an endless stream and it was never felt that there was shortage of any thing.

Guru Ram Das, the fourth Nanak, was an embodiment of dedication, devotion and service. Before he was anointed as Guru, he served Guru Darbar in various ways for a period of about 33 years. He came in contact with Baba Amar Das Sahib (not Guru at that time), when he was just seven years of age, and continued in his service till he attained 40 years of age, and even after he was chosen as son-in-law of the Guru (He was wedded to Bibi Bhani, the younger daughter of Guru Amar Das Sahib). An extract from my own book, ‘The Sikh Tree’, which carries some observations of Principal Satbir Singh as well is reproduced below:

“Jetha Ji (His name was Jetha before he was given the name of Ram Das at the time he was given the Guru Gaddi) was keeping himself so busy in the service of the Sangat, that sometimes for days together he could not go even to Guru’s durbar. Once Guru Ji asked Bhai Balloo ji, another sevak, that Jetha Ji had not been seen for last several days, had he gone out somewhere?

“Bhai Balloo Ji informed him that Bhai Jetha was very much there but was keeping himself so busy with the service of the Sikhs, that he was not having an audience with the Guru. As per Principal Satbir Singh, he said, “He first of all prepares food (langar). He serves the same to sangat, with due respect while asking them to form rows. He brings cold water himself. He meets the needs of everyone. He also recites Shabad Gurbani to them. He prepares bed for every Sikh who comes for pilgrimage. When the sangat sleeps at night, he renders ‘fan service’. He also does massage of those who are very tired. If any person asks for water even during night or raises some other demand, he fulfills every one’s needs. This is why, he could not come to you.” Guru Amar Das Sahib was very much pleased, and showered several blessings on him. Langar of Guru Ram Das Sahib that is being run at Harmandir Sahib (Golden temple) is world famous and endless streams of visitors partake the same daily.

Guru Arjun Sahib like his father Guru and other preceding Gurus did not lag behind. He rendered a lot of service at Lahore, Goindwal, Amrtisar and at Tarn Taran. A mention of just one incident shall reflect his devotion, concern and commitment. Once some sangat from Kabul was coming to Amritsar for having a glimpse of the Guru and listening to his sermons. As night fell just when they were to enter the city of Amritsar, they decided to have a halt at the spot and decided to visit the Guru and his durbar the next morning. During the night, Mata Ganga, the revered wife of Guru Sahib, saw some tears in his eyes and asked for the cause of his anxiety. Guru Sahib told her that some sangat from Kabul was having a halt at the outskirts of Amritsar and there were children and old infirm people as well and they were hungry, as they did not have their regular meals. The holy mother and the Guru prepared some langar and personally took it to the sangat and served there without disclosing their identity. Such was the Guru’s love for his Sikhs.

Guru Har Rai Sahib, the seventh Nanak was also equally committed to the cause. He himself was taking his meals while sitting in ‘pangat’, line as a Gursikh. Then he started a system of starting a ‘nagara’, beating of a drum, to show the start of the serving of langar after the morning and the evening diwans, congregations. He also said that while every one must partake at the langar, one must according to one’s capacity contribute towards the langar, let it be handful of flour. That showed one’s commitment and contribution towards the langar. He also forbade people to carry home the langar as he said every one must come personally, sit in ‘pangat’ and have his meals.

Guru Dasmesh put a novel concept into the langar system. The sangat had grown so much during his period that it had virtually become impossible to prepare and serve the food to all at a particular place. He established certain centres and put each centre under the charge of some committed Gursikhs. The instructions were at whatever time of the day or night anyone approaches for the langar, one must be served. If per chance the langar was not ready at the time of demand, the person may be given Katcha ration and the provisions and a facility be provided to him for cooking the food himself. On one occassion at night, pretending to be hungry he personally inspected the langar in disguise and asked for the same from the people in charge or on duty. Next day he announced in the Durbar that he was not satisfied with the quality of the service rendered from anyone, except that of Bhai Nand Lal. Whereas he appreciated him, he chided others and asked them to be more careful.

The system of langar as initiated by the revered Gurus is continuing in a committed manner. The only cause of the martyrdom of Bhai Taru Singh was that he was serving langar to his fellow brethren in the forests. Then the famous Saka of Panja Sahib took place as Gursikhs lay down on the rail tracks in order to stop the train that was carrying some Sikh prisoners in transit, as they wanted to serve them langar. Thus in Sikhism whereas ‘Guru Shabad’, the spiritual food, has its importance, yet ‘Guru Langar’, the food for the body, does not have lesser importance.


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