Agniva Bhaumik/MiC.

Before my self-important teenage years of identifying with atheism merely for the sake of doing so, I was the most religious 10-year-old you’ve probably ever met. Although raised Hindu, my grandparents found great importance in taking me to varying places of worship as a child. Whether it was a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara or a Muslim mosque, they valued the lessons and morals found in all religions. Regardless, the meaning of religiosity was lost on me. All I knew as a child was that I needed to veil my head before entering any of these religious spaces, follow my grandparents and bow my head where they told me to offer prayer. As a 20-year-old woman who now only practices religion culturally to continue traditions from my family, I cherish these memories of following my grandparents’ footsteps in confusion. Of course, my only understanding of culture and religion at the time was through food. In fact, my entire Punjabi childhood could be chronicled through my experience with food, especially in those moments with my grandparents.

During the years I lived in India and even during the times I would go back to visit, I loved visiting gurdwaras with my grandparents, even if it was just for the food. I used to anticipate the mound of Kara Prashad, which was typically halwa, that would be placed in my palms. My mother made halwa at home sometimes, but her whole-grain organic version simply could not beat the gurdwara halwa steeping in ghee. The process of receiving prashad felt intimate and was an opportunity for me to develop gratitude as a child. Although I became familiar with the procedural aspects of temples, I never understood what worship actually entailed. When I would close my eyes while kneeling at the altar, I never knew if I should converse with “god” in English or Hindi. At some point, my grandfather reassured me that any god I spoke to would understand me, even if I said nothing at all. My most treasured memory of the gurdwaras, however, came at the end of our visits. After we finished our prayers, we would enter variations of a large field or room with straw mats lined up into anywhere from 10 to 100 rows for langar

Langar is a communal feast that is part of a Sikh tradition, where the gurdwara serves blessed food to people free of cost. Historically, the langar was seen as a radical way of placing people of different classes, castes and religions in a setting where everyone was treated equally. This happens in a very literal sense as people sit in double-lined rows, back-to-back and knee-to-knee. We all eat out of the same metal trays, are served the same food and sit under the same roof. Simply, this process of eating food together makes us equal to each other.

When attending langar, I would look up at volunteers hauling huge buckets of daal, vegetable and bread. They would spoon the food onto your plate with large ladles, without any care for the food spilling on you — somehow, that made the experience more enjoyable. As a picky American kid, I would cover my plate with my hand if I didn’t want what they were serving. In turn, the older aunties would smack my hand away with the ladle, completely ignoring any standard of hygiene (something that unexpectedly incites nostalgia). The end of langar was always completed with kheer, an Indian rice pudding with spices like cardamom and saffron. The routine and structure of langar always brought me comfort as they did for many others. 

As a kid, I had absolutely no appreciation for free food. But now, as a college student who will jump at the chance to go to any school event with free food, the concept of langar is full of magnanimity and benevolence. The ideology and beliefs of Sikhism directly counter the disparities that have been caused by Hindu caste distinctions. In this way, langar represents a sanctuary of oneness and unity.

The practice of langar is not unique in practice to South Asia. Gurdwaras across the world offer langar service for people of all backgrounds and religions. In reflection on langar as an adult, I find these traditions in my culture to be incredibly vital for many of the issues we face both in the US and globally. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous Gurdwaras adapted the tradition of langar by providing delivery or other services. Regardless of the events going on around the world, gurdwaras find a way to reach their community. This tradition of seva, or service, is integral to Sikhism and something that Sikhs bring to their communities all across the globe. As I reminisce on my visits to the Gurdwara, I am filled with nostalgia for my life in India and my innocence-filled childhood.

Wahe guru wahe jio

MiC Columnist Shania Baweja can be reached at shaniab@umich.edu.