It’s 5 am, and the langar at Golden Temple in Amritsar is ready to serve its first meal of the day — tea and snacks. Devotees sleeping on the premises are stirring awake and making their way to the two spartan halls at the Guru Ramdas Community Kitchen building. The community kitchen, having taken a break for 30 minutes — from 4.30 am to 5, its only break in a 24X7 operation — is now ready to serve an estimated 50,000 cups of tea and biscuits or bread, over the next two and a half hours. On a regular day, at least 50,000-80,000 eat at the kitchen, which was started by the fourth Sikh saint, Guru Ramdas, in 1577. This rises to above a lakh on weekends. The idea behind the langar, as per the Sikh faith, is for people of all castes and religions to eat together before visiting the Guru.
Since its inception, the langar at the Golden Temple has only been interrupted when the then Sikh Confederacy lost Amritsar to a host of invaders in the 18th century, and during Operation Blue Star in 1984.
These days, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which runs the community kitchen, has more contemporary issues to contend with. After the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, the SGPC expects the budget to run its three prominent community kitchens — at Golden Temple, the Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur and the Takht Damdama Sahib Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda — to go up by Rs 10 crore. The committee spends Rs 30 crore every year on running the langar at Golden Temple from its annual budget, which was Rs 1,106 crore in 2017-18.
“Our purchases were out of the tax system before the GST. We want this back,” says SGPC president Kirpal Singh Badungar.
Over at the langar halls, the sewadars (working in the kitchen) are catering to people sitting in rows along the floor, from a steel container that is pushed along on wheels. They open a spigot at the bottom of the container to let out the tea into steel bowls.
At the kitchen, stock-taking is on, to ensure there is enough material for the day, as cooking must begin immediately. Nearly a quarter of the material is given as offering by devotees; the rest is bought in bulk, for which Golden Temple has a manager and a team. The material is transported to the kitchen on trolleys and mini-trucks, from trucks that halt outside the Walled City, as the lanes leading to Golden Temple are narrow. The vehicles move almost constantly.
A total of 495 SGPC employees work at the kitchen in three shifts, apart from 150 sewadars and 250 volunteers at a time. Volunteers are allowed to perform all the tasks except cooking, for which there are 13 cooks, four of whom are working today.
The menu for the day is dal, lauki (bottle-gourd), rice and kheer, along with chappatis. It changes every day and sometimes has to be changed at the last minute if a devotee offers, for example, a lot of vegetables, or for a certain dish to be served.
The first meal has to be ready by 8 am when the devotees start streaming in. “The langar is cooked in three spells. We cook in advance so as to avoid any mess,” says Bhupinder Singh, who has been a ground manager with the kitchen for 17 years.
When he first joined the Golden Temple community kitchen in 2001, Singh says, 30-35 quintals of flour would be consumed for chappatis daily. “Now we consume around 65 quintals daily.” The kitchen also uses up around 16 quintals of pulses, 16 quintals of vegetables and 14 quintals of rice on a routine basis. Kheer takes up at least 7.50 quintals of dry milk powder in a day.
“The per day budget of running the community kitchen is around Rs 11 lakh, going up to Rs 16 lakh on weekends and special occasions. We have dal, a vegetable, rice, salad, a sweet dish and chappatis. There may be extra items on special occasions such as Gurupurab and Diwali,” Singh says.
The kitchen, spread across an acre, has three machines to make chappatis, each churning out around 4,000 an hour. Besides, women volunteers make chappatis, around 2,000 an hour. Each chappati gets a dab of desi ghee, applied with a cloth tied to a stick.
The ghee, in fact, is one of the commodities that will cost the SGPC dear after the GST, inviting a tax of 12 per cent. The Temple uses around 7 quintals daily and expects an increase of Rs 50,000 on its daily budget of Rs 4 lakh for ghee. Wazir Singh, also a ‘ground manager’, says there is no alternative. “Desi ghee is also the identity of Punjab. It makes food more healthy and tasty.”
Bhupinder Singh says Guru Amardas, who formalised the idea of the langar, would have been happy at the diversity of those eating together at the community kitchen now. “Earlier mostly Sikhs would come. Now people come from across the world.”
Sandeep Singh Teja, a government teacher and volunteer, says the GST on the langar is unfair. “The SGPC is caught up in a lot of politics. I also condemn it. But this is not about the SGPC alone. You will find Hindus and even Muslims serving as volunteers. Such a service should be above any kind of tax,” he says.
Says Wazir Singh, “We try to make the food tasty, but it is not our cooks but God Himself who makes this food.”