On a hot afternoon as the temperature hovers around 34°C, half a dozen men inside the world’s largest community kitchen nonchalantly prepare meals in huge gas and wood-powered woks to feed more than 100,000 devotees.
They serve lentil soup, vegetable curry, basmati rice and rice pudding, cooked around the clock at a community kitchen inside the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site, in Amritsar, Punjab, northern India.
It is the world’s largest free kitchen, according to the The World Book of Records, and is open 24/7 throughout the year to everyone, irrespective of religion, caste, creed or gender.
Authorities say about 5,000 kilograms of wheat, 1,800 kilograms of lentils, 1,400 kilograms of rice, 5,000 litres of milk, 1,000 kilograms of sugar and 5,000 kilograms of ghee or clarified butter are consumed every day.
Nearly 1,500 kilograms of liquefied petroleum gas and 500 kilograms of firewood are needed to cook the meals.
Every day, nearly 500 volunteers, called “sevadaar”, prepare vegetarian meals for 100,000 people – devotees and tourists who throng to the temple kitchen called the Guru Ramdas Langar, named after the fourth of the ten Sikh gurus.
“Our volunteers work throughout the day and night to serve meals to the people,” kitchen supervisor w told The National.
“We don’t discriminate. Any person can come here and enjoy the meals. There are four entrances to this temple symbolising the acceptance of people from all religions.”
A dozen volunteers work in the ground-floor kitchen area under the supervision of lead chefs, cooking meals on the massive woks perched on a high platform.
In a separate section, huge volumes of tea are brewed in gigantic vessels, as men stir the hot liquid with ladles the size of boat oars.
Another group of men patiently sits in a corner cutting vegetables and cleaning utensils.
On the first floor, more than 100 men and women patiently make chapatis – Indian flat breads – on large rectangular stoves.
Every few minutes, tall, well-built men rush in and fill smaller vessels with soup, rice, or tea to serve to about 5,000 people at a time.
The air is filled with religious slogans as devotees grin with pride.
Equality and communal harmony
The concept of “langar”, meaning a feeding centre for travellers in Persian, was devised by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, in the 15th century.
It was established as a custom by the third guru, Guru Amar Das in every gurudwara or the Sikh temple, with the purpose of promoting equality and communal harmony in the deeply divided Indian society.
The gurus initiated the trend to encourage people from all gender, caste, and religion to gather and sit together to eat the same meals.
Mr Singh said: “You will not see so many people from different backgrounds, whether rich or poor, sitting on the floor and eating together anywhere else in the world.
“This is the beauty of our sangat, our community.”
He added: “The people here you see are all doing seva [service] to mankind. They don’t get tired and work happily.
“They come in two shifts, morning and evening, work for 12 hours and never shy away from doing extra chores.
He said anyone who wishes to “extend their helping hand are welcome to volunteer”.
“Our Guru started this tradition and we are following it,” he added.
The Golden Temple covers 4,645 square metres, over three floors.
The food is served in two first-floor halls, which cover the area of three basketball courts and accommodate about 5,000 diners sitting crossed-leg on the floor.
Every 15 minutes, the dining area is cleaned for the next sitting of hungry devotees.
To cope with demand, the gurudwara has also introduced three automatic chapati-makers, each churning out 4,000 pieces per hour, on the second floor.
The volunteers are mostly neighbours or devotees who, as well as preparing food, wash more than 300,000 plates, spoons, glasses and bowls.
It costs more than 300 million rupees ($3.6 million) a year to run the langar, which Mr Singh said is covered by donations.
Sikhs have a religious obligation to contribute one-tenth of their earnings for the welfare of the community.
“People donate and that’s how we run this kitchen,” Mr Singh said.
“It is a community service and our community actively takes part in this noble cause. We never have to worry about money, the sangat [community] looks after the meals.”