The Langar or “free kitchen” was initiated by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, in the year 1481. It has been conceptualised to maintain the principle of equality among all people of the world, irrespective of religion, caste, creed, colour, gender, social status or age. Its primary objective is to get rid of extreme poverty faced by the world and to bring about the development of caring communities.
For the very first time in the history of the world, Guruji came forth with an institution where all individuals would sit down on the floor together to eat simple, nutritious food, as equals.
This concept of “Guru ka Langar” has efficiently served the community in several ways. It has made sure that children and women participate in a task of service to humankind. Everyone has to sit in rows called pangat, following which food will be served to them.
No one is ever turned away from a langar. The food is generally served twice each day, everyday of the year. Every week, a particular family or a group of families volunteer to provide and eventually prepare the Langar. This is an extremely generous act because there are hundreds waiting to enter the gurdwara to partake in the Langar. The complete preparation, cooking, serving, and washing-up are done by volunteers or helpers, who are also known as “Sewadars.”
In addition to Langars that are attached to gurdwaras, there are also improvised open-air Langars held during festivals and gurpurbs. Specially-arranged Langars during such occasions are in all probability the most largely-attended community meals held anywhere in the world. Wherever there is a community of Sikhs, they have established the practice of Langars. The Sikhs seek favour from the Almighty when they pray, "Loh Langar tapde rahin," which loosely translates as "May the Langar’s iron pots be always warm in service."
Guru ka Langar, which can be literally translated as Gurus’ community dining hall, is a community kitchen that is eventually run in the name of the Guru. Sometimes referred to as Guru’s Kitchen, it is usually a small dining hall that is attached to the gurdwara.
In case of larger gurdwaras, such as the Harmandir Sahib, the Langar dons the look of a military kitchen with tasks well arranged so that sewadar teams successfully prepare tons of food (all vegetarian meals) for thousands of devotees on an everyday basis. The word “Langar” is said to be derived from the Persian language, which translates as an “almshouse.” Certain scholars trace the word “Langar” to the Sanskrit “analgarh,” which means cooking room. Besides the word, the institution of the Langar can be traceable in the Persian tradition, too. Langars were seen to be organised at Sufi centres in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The activities and life of Guru Nanak were truly remarkable from early childhood. His father, Mehta Kalu, was eager that his son must adopt a lucrative and respectable profession. At the tender age of twelve, his father wanted him to succeed as a trader; so, he gave him 20 rupees and told him to utilize the money to strike a “good, profitable bargain,” in order to do a “Sacha Sauda” or profitable business.
Instead of striking a good “worldly” bargain, Guru Nanak bought food with all the money he had and subsequently distributed the food among the local holy people or sadhus who were hungry for several days.
When his father asked him what he eventually did with the money, he replied that he had conducted “true business” by feeding the hungry.
Such noble and kind intentions of the young Nanak and his utter refusal to hoard worldly possessions indicate that he was never an ordinary man, but one who was sure to be a true Guru, a spiritual teacher for humanity. Today, at the same spot where Guru Nanak had fed the hungry, there exists a gurdwara by the name of Gurdwara Sacha Sauda. This is precisely how the tradition of Langar began in Punjab.
The Langar’s backbone is ultimately the “sewadars” or volunteers performing selfless service, both Sikhs and non-Sikhs who want to help. Because it is a community kitchen, anyone can help in running it. This function of “sewa” eventually results in a feeling of being in a community in everyone’s minds while drop their egos. The feeling of “I” and “me” are forgotten while they contribute to the wider human cause through their valuable service.
Bhai Desa Singh in his famous Rehitnama says that a well-to-do Sikh should look after the needs of his poor brethren. Whenever he meets a hungry pilgrim or traveller from a foreign region, he must devotedly serve him.
When it comes to smaller gurdwaras, cooked food obtained from numerous households could comprise the langar. Whatever be the case, no visitor or pilgrim will miss food in a gurdwara at meal time. Sharing a meal by sitting in a pangat is a sincere act of piety for a Sikh. So is his active participation in cooking and distributing food as well as cleaning and washing the used dishes.
The final words of Guru Gobind Singh where he passed away at Nanded were to keep the langar ever open.
While preparing food for Langar, the nose and mouth must be covered by a piece of cloth called “parna.” In addition, unrivalled importance is given to cleanliness and purity, and the sewadars or volunteers will generally utter the Gurbani and refrain from talking if possible. When the Langar is finally ready, a small portion of each dish is placed in a bowl or plate and placed in front of the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, and a prayer, known as Ardas, is recited.
Thus, now you have a fair idea about the practice of Langar in Sikhism.