BY ELLE WALLS
LONDON — Inside the Langar, a free community kitchen at a Sikh temple in a London suburb, three men wearing colorful turbans cluster around a giant pot. They’re preparing kara parshad, a cookie-dough-like pudding offered as a blessing from their God. Four other Sikh men are serving food at the counter in front of the kitchen.
Guests form a line in front of these men to receive a traditional Sikh meal. There are no tables or chairs, just rows of rugs where the diners sit on the floor to eat. A woman with a light blue scarf covering her hair washes dishes at the opposite end of the Langar.
None of these men or women is paid.
Throughout the day, volunteers of all ages come to the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the largest Sikh temple outside India. Seva, or selfless service, is an important element of their religion. “The best way [to worship God] is to do some act—an act of kindness, an act of looking after your family, an act of charity,” says Sukhpreet Singh, a practicing Sikh and lecturer at Bournemouth University.
Sikhism was founded in the 15th century, making it the world’s youngest monotheistic religion. More than 20 million around the globe practice Sikhism. It started as a reaction against Hinduism and the divisions it created between its followers, such as castes. The new religion emphasized justice, equality and fellowship.
Sikhism is built on the teachings of ten gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak. The tenth, Guru Gobind Singh, decided that his successor wouldn’t be a human but rather the Sikh’s sacred text. The 1,430-page Guru Granth Sahib includes lessons from each guru as well as people of other faiths.
One of the lessons is Guru Nanak’s three pillars of Sikhism—Naam Japo, or remembering God; Wand kay Shako, or sharing one’s wealth with those in need; and Kira Kami, or working hard and living an honest life. “Community service is the second part of Sikhism,” says Balbir Singh, a volunteer at Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall Gurdwara. “It’s part of the exercise; it’s a spiritual exercise.”
Some volunteers work three or four hours every day in the Gurdwara. “We start early in the morning at 5 o’clock and go until 10 p.m. close,” says volunteer Harjit Singh, who cooks and serves food in the Langar.
Volunteers give back to the community by cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, passing out Parshad, and singing and playing music. “Someone told me that washing dishes actually cleanses your conscious,” Sukhpreet says.
Even though the Southall Gurdwara is a Sikh temple, all members of the community are welcome to worship, cook or eat here. “Anyone in the neighborhood who fancies coming to the Gurdwara and having a good time can come,” Suhkpreet says. “Volunteering can take very different aspects, very different faces.”
Click here for Megan Nelson’s visual representation of the story.