Tue | Oct 20, 2020

Girish Kumar Juneja | Faith and service in the time of COVID-19

Published:Sunday | May 31, 2020 | 12:27 AM

Community kitchen in the Gurudwara where food is prepared by volunteers.
Community kitchen in the Gurudwara where food is prepared by volunteers.

The golden-domed Bangla Sahib Gurdwara (abode of the gurus) in India’s capital city of New Delhi, the place of worship of the Sikh community, is cooking 100,000 free meals daily for the needy who have lost their livelihoods because of the COVID-19 lockdown. Sikhism is one of the many religious faiths that originated in India in the 15th century, and its proponents are known for their industrious nature, business acumen and selfless service.

The gurdwara has previously remained open through wars and plagues, serving simple vegetarian food to millions of people on the marble floor of its large dining hall. For centuries, the needy have flocked to the temple for a free meal at the community kitchen, the symbol of equality found at every Sikh temple complex and open to all visitors.

Although religious congregations are banned in India because of COVID-19, Bangla Sahib has kept its kitchen open with the help of about 50 persons who haven’t gone home since the lockdown began on March 25, for fear of infecting their loved ones. They work in the gurudwara kitchen in 18-hour shifts, using a machine that makes 5,000 chapati (thin flat bread or roti) every hour, and plan to ramp up the number of meals to 300,000 per day.

Bangla Sahib is one of India’s many gurdwaras, whose kitchens together form a vital part of the country’s strategy to feed the poor during the pandemic. Besides feeding in its dining hall, the government sends trucks to pick up the meals each day and distribute them to a network of shelters and drop-off points.

In Sikhism, the practice of the langar, or the free kitchen, is believed to have been started by the founder of Sikhism and the first guru, Guru Nanak, in order to uphold the principle of equality among all people, regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status. Since then, offering of free food has become a central tenet of Sikhism and, today, Langars are held in gurdwaras all over the world, where volunteers offer free vegetarian food twice daily, each day of the year, without any discrimination.

VOLUNTEER SERVICES

Gurudwaras run Langars by the donations received not only by the Sikh community, but also by the people of other faiths. The donations can be in the form of money or material like fruits, vegetables and food grains. People can also volunteer with serving and delivering food, cleaning dishes, etc.

The Akal Takht, the chief centre of religious authority of Sikhism, located in the Amritsar in the northern Indian state of Punjab, has also appealed to all gurudwaras and Sikh communities across the world to rise and support the needy in all possible ways, be it through free food, medicines, other necessary supplies or providing of quarantine facilities. The gurudwaras in India and across the world have responded to the call by increasing the number of daily meals and shelter provisions for anyone in need.

In the USA, the New York mayor’s office had approached the Sikh Center in New York for assistance in March 2020, and tens of thousands of food packages have been handed out to several distributing federal agencies in the region ever since. Strict hygiene practices and social distancing norms have been observed while preparing and distributing the food. Several Sikh volunteers from the East, West Coast and the Mid-West of the United States are also involved in similar food-preparation exercises, along with delivering essentials and medicines for the homeless and the needy.

Gurudwaras in Australian cities like Melbourne and Adelaide have started a free tiffin service for those in isolation, who can order food by telephone and the food is delivered at their doorstep. With services shutting down in Canada, too, many gurudwaras have launched a food-delivery service for free, with the help of local restaurants and Sikh families.

In the UK, the Midland Langar Sewa Society has earned a lot of praise for serving hot meals to the homeless in Birmingham, and has announced that its teams would reach out to those who have isolated themselves throughout the UK. Many other gurudwaras in countries like New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, etc are also involved in similar exercises.

The practice of Langar represents the best of Indian culture and civilisation. This selfless service offered by the gurudwaras worldwide depicts one of the finest examples of how religion can be leveraged as a medium for helping those in need, promoting equality and unifying the world at a time when the entire humanity is battling against a common threat.

- Girish Kumar Juneja is second secretary and head of Chancery, at the High Commission of India in Jamaica. Email feedback to hoc.kingston@mea.gov.in