Article body

Enter almost any Canadian Sikh place of worship on a Sunday and you will be enthusiastically invited to join members for their communal meal, or langar. Sikhs throughout the world are proud of this tradition, which includes welcoming and feeding outsiders in their gurdwaras. Canadian Sikhs are certainly no exception. Yet surprisingly few Canadians outside the Indo-Canadian communities have heard of this food-centered marker of Sikh religious life, let alone participated in one, despite the fact that Sikhs have been part of the Canadian landscape for over one hundred years. The langar represents one example demonstrating the role food plays in the religious lives of Canadians.[1]

Sikhs currently make up roughly 1 percent of the Canadian population, now equal to the Jewish presence in this country. Of the total population of Canadian Sikhs, 70 percent live in Vancouver and Toronto, 90 percent in British Columbia and Ontario. The first Sikh immigrants to Canada were men who arrived on the West Coast at the turn of the 20th century. Many were retired British soldiers looking for work to support their families in the Punjab area of India. Most returned home in the face of the widespread discrimination they experienced in this country, including the 1907 federal government ban on Indian immigration. But some stayed, and relatively small numbers of Sikhs spread throughout Western Canada in the first half of the 20th century, often in small towns, working in factories and as labourers. Changes to the immigration restrictions in 1947 and, more profoundly, in 1967 with the introduction of the race-neutral point system, led to large-scale immigration of more educated Sikhs to urban centres like Montréal and Toronto [Fig. 1]. Indeed, from 1951 to 1981 the Canadian Sikh population rose from 2,148 to 67,710, with many taking white collar jobs and owning their own businesses. These numbers have continued to rise dramatically, to 147,000 in 1991, and 278,000 in the 2001 census, in part as a result of the addition of refugees escaping the conflict in India over the Sikh struggles for a homeland. While many Canadian Sikhs now come from families that have long been in this country, two thirds are first-generation immigrants.[2]

Figure 1

A large, urban gurdwara in Brampton, Ontario.

-> See the list of figures

This paper describes the langar and the central role it plays in Sikh community life. Many of the examples come from our fieldwork with Sikhs in Canada, as well as our Indian experiences, including several visits to the Golden Temple in Amritsar [Fig. 2]. One remarkable feature about the langar today is that it changes very little, whether one encounters it in Abbotsford or Bangalore; moreover, Sikhs around the world attribute a timeless quality to it, conceiving of it having only slight variations over the centuries. The langar plays not only an important but a distinct role in the lives of Canadian Sikhs—yet little of that distinctiveness is mentioned in literature describing Sikh culture. The second half of our paper begins to touch on this vital component of food culture in Canada. The points with which we close are those that emerged from our field research, but are all but absent in the literature: the function of the langar in building community among Canadian Sikhs, including university students, and the potential it contains for outreach to a wide range of Canadians.

Figure 2

-> See the list of figures

The institution of the langar (meaning “anchor”) has its origins in the first two hundred years of Sikhism, a religion with Hindu and Muslim roots that emerged in northwest India in the early 16th century. Sikhism was realized through a succession of ten male religious leaders or Gurus, the first being Guru Nanak.[3] Sikhs consider their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, the eleventh Guru and the community’s leader, and give it pride of place in each gurdwara (“doorway to the Guru”). Inspired by contemporary Sufi practice,[4] as well as by Guru Nanak’s concern for feeding the poor and removing divisions between people, the langar blossomed in the early decades of the emergence of this new religious movement. By the early 17th century it had become a Sikh fixture, and the practice continues to this day.[5]

Two women nurtured the development of the langar tradition in its formative period: Mata Khivi and Mata Sundri, the second and tenth Gurus’ wives. The Guru Granth Sahib notes “that Khivi, the Guru’s wife [Guru Angad Dev], is a noble woman, who gives soothing, leafy shade to all. She distributes the bounty of the Guru’s langar; the kheer—the rice pudding and ghee—is like sweet ambrosia.”[6] After the death of Guru Gobind Singh 150 years later, his widow Mata Sundri worked hard to continue the free community kitchen service, which she personally oversaw. Records show her active role in fundraising for this purpose even when the very survival of Sikhism was in question due to violent Muslim persecution of this new religious movement.[7]

Organizing a langar has always required attention to many details, in addition to adequate funds.[8] Gurdwaras require kitchens and an adjoining space for people to eat. In most larger gurdwaras, both inside and outside India, ordinary worshippers volunteer to prepare food daily, and the food is available all day long. In those with smaller congregations, langar follows the main weekly services.

Uncooked food is brought to the gurdwara in large quantities; the majority is typically brought to the temple by members of the congregation but the gurdwara leadership also purchases food from donated funds [Fig. 3].[9] Men and women prepare the food in and around the kitchen, and typically many people are involved in cutting, cooking, and stirring. Men handle most of the heavy tasks, and women handle the details of food preparation [Figs. 4; 5]. The food is simple, healthy, tasty, and vegetarian. Punjabi food is the norm, even in Canada, though in theory gurdwaras can serve any vegetarian fare. As a result, the langar commonly includes roti, cooked vegetables, dahl, yoghurt, kheer (rice pudding), sweets (e.g. ladoos or jelebis) and water for drinking. Indian spices add an additional taste of the Punjab.

Figure 3

-> See the list of figures

Figure 4

Men cook rotis in a gurdwara in Bangalore, India.

-> See the list of figures

Figure 5

Women prepare rotis in a Brampton, Ontario gurdwara.

-> See the list of figures

Before the food is served, it must be blessed. Volunteers, usually men, ladle small amounts from each pot onto a metal dish [Fig. 6], and bring that dish to the prayer hall, where they place it beside the Guru Granth Sahib, to whom it is first ceremonially offered. We have seen this done in several places in India and Canada. When the ceremonial dagger, or kirpan, touches the food in that dish, the blessing is explicitly ritualized. The Guru not only symbolically receives the first taste, but the touch transforms the food, making it “God-intoxicated.” This transformation is confirmed by many Sikhs, who comment that the langar food tastes better than home food, even when the same ingredients are used; the same type of comment about transformed food is common, we’ve discovered, among Buddhists and Hindus. The blessed food is then returned to the kitchen and stirred into the larger pots, transferring the blessing to all the food served in the langar. People receive the blessed food reverently, and they are expected to eat it all.

Figure 6

-> See the list of figures

Langar activities do not follow a set order, but people usually move to the langar area following prayer and reflection. Many will eat following a major service, where they will first have received into their hands a small lump of karah prashad, a sweet, rich sacramental food made from ghee (clarified butter), sugar, water, and flour. Entering the langar area, people pick up their plates and cups before they sit to eat [Fig. 7], then choose a free spot on long rows of mats.[10] Assistants, usually men, continuously pass by the people sitting on these mats, filling their dishes. People eat relatively quickly, then leave, giving their places to others and their dishes to volunteers to wash.

Figure 7

-> See the list of figures

Four core Sikh principles are enshrined in the langar: equality, hospitality, service, and charity. When asked about langar, Sikhs in both India and Canada most often cite equality as the core component. All those who eat sit in rows, side by side, Sikh and non-Sikh, rich and poor. Often, though not always in both India and Canada, men and women sit together, reinforcing this principle of equality, especially in situations where it is not common for men and women to be acting in this way in public. Moreover, langar food preparation is also usually open to all. In all the gurdwaras we have visited, as participant observers who self-identified as a non-Sikh couple, volunteers have welcomed our requests to help [Fig. 8], though they have typically been far more exuberant in encouraging us to partake of the food!

Figure 8

-> See the list of figures

In 16th century India, this practice of sharing a meal with anyone constituted a revolutionary idea. For some Indians today it remains controversial. Indians often tell the story of Guru Amar Das informing Mughal Muslim Emperor Akbar, when he went to see him in the late 16th century, that even the most powerful political figure of the land had to eat at the langar like everyone else before meeting the Guru. Legend has it that the Emperor agreed to partake, sitting with the others and eating simple fare, before he granted his audience.

Hospitality builds on this primary principle of equality. Like many religious places of worship, especially in India, gurdwaras are open to everyone. This open door policy is complemented by an invitation for visitors to join the langar [Fig. 9]. The vegetarian fare heightens the welcome. In India, where people belonging to some religious traditions insist on vegetarianism and others have meat restrictions, and where the presence of certain types of meat can be exclusionary, the vegetarian langar explicitly respects religion-based dietary practices. An exclusively vegetarian langar also suits the Sikhs themselves, since many insist that baptized, or amritdhari Sikhs especially ought to be vegetarian. Vegetarianism is a contested issue in modern-day Sikhism. The Guru Granth Sahib is ambiguous on this topic and most Sikhs over the centuries have eaten meat, but a significant component in a modern-day Sikh’s decision to undergo the amrit ceremony is the commitment to life-long vegetarianism. A vegetarian langar, therefore, not only accentuates hospitality, but also reflects an internal Sikh ideal of purity and dedication to God.

Figure 9

-> See the list of figures

Parkash Singh captures the connection between langar and service, or seva, the third principle enshrined in the langar, when he indicates that “the real good lies in doing service to others. For a Sikh, looking after the needs of the disciples gathered in a congregation, cooking food in the Free Kitchen [langar], serving meals to the needy and washing dishes represents a lesson in egolessness, humility, and love for others.”[11]

Like other religious traditions, Sikhism highly values charity, the fourth core principle. The langar reflects this aspect of charity in three ways. First, although the langar is not intended to function as a soup kitchen, the hungry are welcomed. Second, in some key texts langar functions as a metaphor for charity. This link comes out most clearly in the play on two words often made in early Sikh documents: deg, or cooking pot, and teg, or sword.[12] The cooking pot is “a symbol of sharing and charity, and the sword is there as a symbol of standing up for truth and justice.”[13] Third, volunteers, before completing their duties, bring food leftovers from the meal to those in need. The custom varies from one gurdwara to another. In Bangalore, for instance, one gurdwara we visited distributed their excess food to the slum a few blocks away. In Canada, the gurdwara just outside Kitchener brings its excess food to a men’s shelter in town run by a Christian organization.[14] In this case, the charity that is expressed by providing free cooked food for those who come to the gurdwara, almost all of whom are Sikhs, is extended to outsiders, a process that in this case is facilitated by a Christian group. Interreligious exchanges here occur through food exchange, which for Sikhs brings them back, not only to the core principle of charity but to the langar itself, which encapsulates so many of the Sikh ideals.

The practice and the rhetoric surrounding the core principles associated with the langar in India, as we have seen, have transferred nearly seamlessly through Indian emigration to Canada, and elsewhere.[15] Canadian Sikhs typically worship on Sundays, and the langars, which almost always follow those services, have a great many similarities to their Indian models. Moreover, Sikhs we’ve interviewed here, from university students to leaders of the community, consistently repeat the same principles that we heard in India: the langar, they insist, is about equality, hospitality, service and charity.

To be sure, as with all religious traditions Sikh principles are not always in accord with practice, particularly with migration.[16] In Canada today two core factors exacerbate this reality. The multicultural and increasingly secular society at times creates a set of challenges for religious individuals trying to adhere to distinct traditional practices and thought. In addition, Canada provides a very different climate, social structure, and food environment, necessitating adaptation and modification of many traditional practices. Both these factors can lead to tensions within the community, between those who are more flexible in adapting their traditions to the Canadian context and those who try to keep as close as possible to traditions they left behind.

The “tables and chairs versus floor” controversy that erupted in gurdwaras throughout British Columbia in the 1990s represents one telling example of how the langar can function as a site of contestation.[17] The issue here revolved around whether the traditional practice of taking langar while sitting in rows on the floor ought to be adapted to a Canadian context by allowing people to use chairs and tables. Embedded in this debate, which occasionally became violent, was a broader political discussion between members of the Sikh community more comfortable with adapting their customs to broader Canadian practices, and those for whom Indian customs are more integrally connected to their identity as Sikhs.

The public debate also revolved around the principle of equality. Critics of the change argued that setting up tables and chairs might lead to divisions between people, with friends pulling up chairs together, or socially important individuals sitting in a manner that gave them more authority than those around them. Supporters of the change, on the other hand, argued that, if all the chairs were simple and identical, and if the change allowed older people more access to the meal and demystified the langar process for younger people, the communal, integrative aspect could actually be enhanced.[18] The result? With few exceptions, Canadian gurdwaras have kept the tradition of eating while sitting on the floor.[19] This result can be linked to a desire on the part of the Canadian Sikh leadership to reduce internal tensions that had resulted in violent acts, which at times were covered in rather sensationalist ways by the media. It can also be linked to a traditionalist impulse that is found in all mainstream religious traditions, the main argument made in retaining the traditional seating pattern focused on the Sikh principle of equality. What was resisted was a practice that had the potential to divide people, and place one person above another.

A second example of an adaptive challenge concerns the positioning of women and men when they eat. In some Canadian gurdwaras men and women sit in separate rows, while in others they mix freely. The leadership of each gurdwara comes to its own decision on this matter, balancing ideals, tradition and politics. Sitting together accords more closely with mainstream Canadian culture, which tends to interpret separation by gender as old-fashioned at best, and discriminatory at worst. This simple characterization, however, belies underlying historical, geographical, and social complexity.[20] When religious idealism and ethnic particularities encounter the modern Canadian experience, what should be done to remain faithful to both? A comment from a male student informant in Waterloo addresses some of these complexities:

Yes, in the langar you’ll find both men and women, cooking, preparing, washing dishes. . . Is this a gender statement? We don’t even see the gender barrier in the langar. Everyone is so equal there that we don’t see the difference. But you see that some women generally have more cooking skills, so they are more involved. . . I was doing something and a woman came by and said, “Let me do that properly!” (chuckle).[21]

In this instance, and several others we encountered, current Canadian egalitarian gender ideals blend with traditional patriarchal gender roles, creating a hybrid structure that is probably slightly more conservative than that which most young Canadians espouse, and slightly more liberal than most older Sikhs prefer.

The langar also helps to build community in other ways among Canadian Sikhs. Some University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia Sikh students have told us how important it is for them to eat langar food. That food reconnects them with the smells and tastes of home, and it also gives them the comfort of knowing that when they have little money left at the end of a school term, they can always be fed at the gurdwara. In fact, at one gurdwara we saw students drop by briefly to pray before making their way to the langar hall to put food into styrofoam containers provided by the community, and then to head back to campus to continue their studies—all this with the support of other members of their religious communities [Fig. 10]. Here again is a Canadian variation to the langar tradition.

Figure 10

-> See the list of figures

In addition, Gurdwara leaders we met, and parents, reflected openly about the positive value of the langar for their children. During the summer and sometimes on weekends, gurdwaras typically offer language, religion, sports, music, and dance lessons for the children, usually complemented by a meal as part of the children’s daily experience.[22] Many Sikhs in Canada know that dahl and chapattis can be an antidote to the lure of fast food chains, and religious Sikhs also believe that the sanctified nature of this food in the gurdwara renders the antidote more effective. They also believe that the Sikh culture is reinforced through participation in the langar. Parents we interviewed noted their efforts to instill Sikhism’s ideals of selflessness and concern for others by having their children volunteer to distribute food at the langars. To be sure, neither parents nor gurdwara leaders are blind to the reality that Canadian Sikh children often prefer hamburgers to dahl, and some teenagers ask themselves why they should work in the gurdwara for nothing. Despite these problems, however, they see the langar as a multipurpose site for keeping the Sikh culture alive.

The structure of the langar also supports community development. During meal preparation, eating, and serving, for instance, children wander freely, sit on the laps of various relatives to be fed, and when they get older they help prepare and serve. They are not “out of sight, out of mind,” and many come to love the practice. A Toronto Sikh man shared with us a touching account of his four-year old niece, who insists on running down to the langar at the end of every visit to the gurdwara.

Moreover, the extraordinarily large number of people required to maintain a langar fosters internal community building, especially in the enormous Vancouver and Greater Toronto Area gurdwaras. As noted already, people need to prepare and cook a huge amount of food, sometimes in shifts, sometimes around the clock. That food needs to be purchased, brought, stored, prepared, and served. Plates need to be washed and stacked. Initially, buildings need to be built, and many are now furnished with industrial kitchens.[23] Money and other forms of support for all of this come through member donations and member participation. It all takes fundraising expertise, time, and large doses of volunteerism. Much of this work requires people working together, sitting across from one another peeling potatoes, washing dishes side by side, shouldering heavy loads, coordinating schedules, fundraising, ensuring that leftovers get properly disposed of, and so forth [Figs. 11; 12].[24] Despite the fact that each gurdwara functions autonomously, and that Sikhs today (especially the youth) are adapting their religion to 21st century realities, including the presence of “ethnospaces” like Facebook which are quite divorced “from concrete geographies of homeland and diaspora,”[25] langar preparation remains vital, and remarkably similar, in Vancouver, Toronto, and Mumbai. Increasingly it is this food component of the Sikh tradition that is becoming the face of Sikhism to its members, and to others.

Figure 11

-> See the list of figures

Figure 12

-> See the list of figures

Sikhs take great pride in their langars, including Sikh youth who tend to be supportive of this practice even when the other links to their religion are being severed. For the last two years Sikh university students at the University of Waterloo have been holding “langar days” on their campus, bringing food from their gurdwara to campus to share with all students. They use the occasion to explain the nature of Sikhism to others curious to know more about Sikh adherents, and to understand why they promote themselves through food.

In our experience Canadians, when they encounter the idea and the reality of the langar, are positively disposed to it, in no small part because it represents all that seems “good” about religion, with a touch of exoticism thrown in for good measure. Sikhs are beginning to do more to make the broader Canadian society aware of their langar, as a form of outreach, and inter-religious, inter-cultural exchange. An increasing number of Canadians are likely to encounter Sikhism through food in the years to come.