Langar is the term used in Sikhism for the community kitchen in a Gurdwara where a free meal is served to all the visitors, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity. The free meal is always vegetarian. People sit on the floor, eat together, and the kitchen is maintained and serviced by Sikh community volunteers.
he langar concept was an innovative charity and symbol of equality introduced by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak around 1500 CE.A related concept emerged from the practices of Fariduddin Ganjshakar, a Sufi saint living in Punjab region during the 13th century, who would redistribute sweets his visitors would bring to his khalifas and common devotees. This concept developed, over time, into langar-khana near his shrine, a practice documented in Jawahir al-Faridi compiled in 1623 CE.According to Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, a professor of Sikh Studies, community kitchens were already operating in Punjab when Guru Nanak founded Sikhism, and these were run by Muslim Sufi orders and by Hindu Gorakhnath orders. However, Guru Nanak developed it as a part of the institutional framework that helped evolve the community free of any prejudices.
The institution of community kitchen and volunteer run charitable feeding is very old in the Indian traditions. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim I Ching (7th-century CE) wrote about monasteries with such volunteer run kitchens. Similarly, Hindu temples of the Gupta Empire era had attached kitchen and almshouse called Dharma-shala or Dharma-sattra to feed the travelers and poor for free, or whatever donation they may leave. These community kitchens and rest houses are evidenced in epigraphical evidence, and in some cases referred to as Satram (for example, Annasya Satram), Choultry or Chathram in parts of India.
In Sikhism, the practice of the langar, or free kitchen, is believed to have been started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. It was designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status. The second Guru of Sikhism, Guru Angad is remembered in Sikh tradition for systematizing the institution of langar in all Sikh temple premises, where visitors from near and far, could get a free simple meal in a communal seating. He also set rules and training method for volunteers (sevadars) who operated the kitchen, placing emphasis on treating it as a place of rest and refuge, being always polite and hospitable to all visitors. Guru Amar Das also encouraged the practice of langar and made all those who visited him attend laṅgar before they could speak to him.
It is unclear whether the langar in the time of Guru Nanak were vegetarian or non-vegetarian, since texts from that era are silent about the menu served. Some scholars state that Guru Amar Das, who joined Sikhism from the Vaishnavism Hindu tradition and was a disciple of Guru Nanak before he was named the second Guru, introduced the vegetarianism at langars.
The institution of Guru ka langar has served the community in many ways. It has ensured the participation of Sikhs in a task of service for mankind. Even Sikh children help in serving food to the people to promote fellowship. Langar also teaches the etiquette of eating in a community situation, which has played a great part in upholding the virtue of equality of all human beings, and provides a welcome, secure and protected sanctuary. People from all classes of society are welcome at the Gurudwara.
Food is normally served twice a day, on every day of the year. Recent reports say some of the largest Sikh community dining halls in Delhi prepare between 50,000 and 70,000 meals per day. At the Golden Temple nearly 100,000 people dine every day, and the kitchen works almost 20 hours daily. Each week one or more families volunteer to provide and prepare the langar. This is very generous, as there may be several hundred people to feed, and caterers are not allowed. All the preparation, cooking and washing-up is also done by voluntary helpers, known as Sewadars.
Besides the langars’ attachment to gurdwaras, there are improvised open-air langars during festivals and gurpurbs. These langars are among the best attended community meals anywhere in the world; upwards of 100,000 people may attend a given meal during these langars. Wherever Sikhs are, they have established the langars for everyone. In their prayers, the Sikhs seek from the Almighty the favour: “Loh langar tapde rahin—may the hot plates of the langars remain ever in service.”