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Langar: how the centuries-old meal continues to confront inequality and stereotypes

By Simon Birinder

In a world obsessed with wealth and status, Langar not only feeds people but challenges hierarchies by creating inclusive environments that do not judge or discriminate

In 1567, Emperor Akbar found himself in a curious predicament. Whilst visiting the third Sikh Guru, Amar Das Ji, he was obliged to do the unthinkable: sit on the floor and eat simple food with commoners.

It was Akbar’s first experience of Langar and his consent to participate left no doubt as to its unique ability to overcome societal boundaries.

The practice of Langar was established in the late 15th century by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, with the aim of alleviating poverty and creating a more egalitarian society in which all people, regardless of race, faith, gender or social status could come together in an environment free from divisive hierarchies.

To achieve its goal, Langar introduced some basic principles: the food served in its halls had to be vegetarian so as to accommodate people of all faiths, it was to be free of charge and equally distributed and those partaking were to be seated in pangat – rows on the floor – so as to be on the same level, regardless of background.

Today, the Sikh religion ranks as the fifth largest in the world with an estimated 28 million adherents predominantly concentrated in India, but with sizeable diasporas across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. And, against a backdrop of growing social inequality made worse by the current pandemic, Langar is appealing to an increasingly wider demographic.

Before the arrival of COVID-19, more than 6 million people worldwide gathered daily in the Langar halls found in all gurdwaras to enjoy a simple vegetarian meal and, by adhering to the founding principles of serving the same food to everyone in a neutral setting, Langar has ensured that those in need of a wholesome meal can enjoy one free from the stigma often attached to the act of receiving free food.  

Owing to current social distancing measures, gurdwaras have had to adapt. Many have replaced the traditional Langar with a more COVID-appropriate take-out service whilst others have taken Langar to the streets and wider community to ensure that those who most need help get it.

But this is nothing new. Sikh charities and gurdwaras across the globe have been doing it for years. The UK-based Nishkam Swat (Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team) has been serving meals to the homeless since 2009 and now provides Langar in 21 locations, mainly in the UK but as far afield as Argentina.

Whilst offering Langar outside its traditional setting forgoes the warm atmosphere of the gurdwaras, this strategic approach means that groups such as the homeless, particularly those with addictions and mental issues, can be more easily reached, thus promoting inclusiveness in a way that is compassionate and non-judgemental.

And the scope of Langar extends much further. According to United Sikhs, a UN-affiliated humanitarian non-profit organisation, there has been “a significant increase in the number of people who rely on Langar for a variety of reasons.” These include the “increased impact in the number and severity of natural disasters due to climate change, growing wealth inequality and widespread homelessness.”

Beyond challenging inequality and class structures, Langar plays an important role in dismantling stereotypes and perceptions of Sikh diasporas around the world by underscoring the invaluable contribution they make to society and proving that it is possible for these groups to retain their sense of cultural and religious identity whilst still being part of the wider community fabric.

As the concept of Langar continues to spread, so too does the understanding that it is not all part of a charm offensive. Those behind Langar are volunteers engaged in selfless service and anyone who wishes to join them may do so, regardless of faith. This, more than anything, is what makes it a socially driven concept capable of breaking down the most divisive barriers.  

When Langar was introduced more than 500 years ago, it was considered revolutionary for promoting inclusiveness by the simple offering of a meal. The fact that, centuries later, such a humble concept continues to be so groundbreaking is staggering.

In many ways Langar acts as a barometer for the state of the world we live in, casting a spotlight on inequality but also showing the limitless bounds of human potential, because no matter how much the class divide grows, Sikhs the world over will always step up to the challenge of levelling out the playing field by putting hierarchy in its place: on the floor, in straight rows.

Whilst the prospect of free food is what often draws non-Sikhs to Langar, its true wonder lies in its unique ability to create spaces accessible by all, sanctuaries in which people from all walks of life are able to sit side by side and enjoy the same wholesome food whilst egos and notions of class are checked at the door.

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