Langar is the word in Sikhism for a communal canteen that serves all people, regardless of religion, for free. The institution of langar was designed to uphold the Sikh principle of sharing and equality between all people regardless of caste, religion, age gender, or social status - a revolutionary idea back in the 16th century when the practice began. In this tradition, the Golden Temple is home to what might be the world’s largest soup kitchen, serving free, hot, vegetarian meals to an average of 100,000 visitors daily. We stopped by for lunch.
The cafeteria is a hugely impressive in both its size and operations. All the food is supplied by donation, and the cafeteria is run by a small army of rotating pilgrims volunteering their time to help run the kitchen. Everything is broken down into simple volunteer tasks where people can jump in to help out however they can. There were whole stations of people sitting on the floor and peeling onions, slicing garlic, and chopping vegetables. Dozens more people worked along long sinks set up for dishwashing. There are dish stackers, dish hander outers, greeters, dirty tray receivers, floor sweepers, and line managers. Everything is done via assembly line, with easily hundreds of volunteers filling in at various stations.
Seeing this huge cafeteria in action was the #1 reason I wanted to visit the Golden Temple. When we joined the crowds walking in at meal time, we entered on the bottom floor of the cafeteria and were handed trays and bowls by greeters standing at the large entrance. The cafeteria has a loud and busy vibe; everyone is chopping, delivering, washing, or else shuffling through a line amid the bangclang of plates being hurriedly stacked. We were then ushered upstairs to wait in line for the next open shift in the large dining room, an experience that felt very much like waiting in line for an amusement park ride. When the doors open, we entered the great hall and took a seat along the floor on a very long floor runner. Then servers came by with huge buckets of dhal, vegetable, rice, dessert (coconut milk rice), and chapatis, working their way up and down the aisle to scoop food onto each person’s plate. There is also a guy with a yellow water jet pack (pictured) who fills a bowl of water for each person. The food is simple but tasty, and refills are unlimited.
After eating, we walked back into one of the cooking areas to see how the dhal and chaptis were made. The cooks were very welcoming about letting us look around and take pictures. As you can see in the photos below, the pot to cook the dhal was one of the largest I’d ever seen! Trust us, the dhal tasted better than it looked. :) Overall the cafeteria was fairly clean - the Sikhs run a tight ship, save small bits of spilled food that had yet to be wiped up, we were impressed with the facilities and operations. Being invited to share a meal at the temple felt deeply hospitable, and speaks to the welcome and equitable values of the Sikh religion.
For even more information (and better photos) on the cafeteria, check our this piece by Al Jazeera.