On my recent trip to Amritsar, I spent some time admiring the amazing Langar at Harminder Sahib (the Golden Temple). A langar is a free kitchen, where anyone -- anyone -- regardless of religion or caste or gender or economi status, is given a free meal. No questions asked. No strings attached. The food is vegetarian, respecting the largely vegetarian palates of Indians (even though Sikhs are not themselves vegetarian). The institution has its roots in the Sikh counterwitness to Hinduism's casteism, rigidly enforced in every sphere of life, especially when it comes to meals and sharing at table. (I was reminded of Dom Crossan's term, open commensality, to describe the radical nature of Jesus' table fellowship as well. There's not much else I think I'd agree with Crossan on though ... :))
The atmosphere at the langar has nothing in common with a US soup kitchen (of my experience), where an invisible but very real line between volunteers and the recipients of charity is noticeable. I think the langar is almost entirely run by volunteers, and everyone contributes to the vast array of details generously. As I walked up, the typical tourist, expensive camera hanging out of the bag, a wizened old greybeard thrust a metal plate under my nose with a smile. I declined, mainly because my stomach was somewhat achurn from the previous evening's visit to the dhabha, but followed the crowd up the stairs to a room where hundreds were sitting down in neat rows on daris as food was being doled out -- largely Sikh, many British accents discernible (especially among the younger ones), but several tourists, and other visitors, and a few who seemed visibly poor.
The Langar at Harminder Sahib feeds 50,000 or so. Every day. In this article, Sarah Rich, in Delhi for a conference on food management, describes a visit to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, where the langar feeds 10,000 daily.
...the Sikh guide who escorted us through the temple grounds told us in no uncertain terms that the kitchen activities are absolutely without ritual. "Cooking food is cooking food," he said, "No ritual. Just cooking." But if it can't be called a ritual, it can surely be called a dance -- a rhythmic, continuous choreography with mounds of dough, cauldrons of lentils, dozens of hands, and an endless stream of hungry visitors.[snip]
The Gurwara Bangla Sahib langara has been feeding Delhi residents since 1935. Day in and day out a factory of human hands churns out what one member of our group observed as a day's peace of mind for hungry members of the community. "If you get your day's meal," he said, "you can relax. You can survive." It's not a matter of survival for everyone who eats there -- in fact, most people with whom we shared lunch looked happy and healthy, and had probably come as members of the spiritual community. But it's there for anyone who needs it, and in a city of 13 million (and rapidly growing), an open, organized, clean, reliable, and free food source couldn't be more valuable. It's a great testament to the stability of a well-organized grassroots effort. While countless hours pass in board rooms and over policy debates to establish government-subsidized and NGO programs for feeding the hungry, a crew of volunteers at Gurwara Bangla Sahib feeds thousands upon thousands of their neighbors with no intervention, no fuss, and no strings attached.(The comments on the article are also instructive.) [Via Desipundit.]
[Interestingly, the Durgiyana Mandir in Amritsar, built in the 1920s by the local Hindu community, including Madan Mohan Malviya, also has a langar - they use that word. "Langar bhavan." The temple itself is designed to copy the Golden Temple, and I guess there was a need to copy the concept of langar itself. Feeding the community or the poor is a common pious practice among Hindus, and often one encounters throngs of the poor being fed outside temples. However, it is neither as central to the practice of the religion, nor as egalitarian, or as well-organized as the langar is in Sikhism, I'd suspect.]