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Rolling rotis in Amritsar’s Golden Temple

Amritsar: The family standing at the long, snaking line to enter Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple of Amritsar, is fighting. All around are people prayerfully singing kirtans (devotional songs), but this father and son, united by their pink turbans, but divided by their accents, are arguing.

“I am a Sikh in my heart,” says the boy who looks to be about 16. “Why do I need to wear a turban to prove it?”

“Because wearing a turban is one of the five tenets of our faith. You should be proud of it, not ashamed of it,” replies the father.

In Sikhism, five items are considered necessary to be carried or worn by the devout. The five Ks, as they are called, include the kara or metal bracelet, kesh or unshorn hair, kangha or wooden comb, kachera or undergarment, and kirpan or dagger. Together, they form the identity of a pure or khalsa follower of the Sikh way. Of the five, the turban remains the most visible embodiment—and the focus of this family’s quarrel.

“Who says anything about being ashamed? I just think that religion should be private, not something to shout from the rooftops,” says the boy.

“Have the kids at school when bullying you again?” asks the father.

“Dad, that was in third grade. I can handle it now.”

“Talk some sense into your son,” says the father to his wife. She stands with the resigned wariness (and weariness) of long-suffering spouses who have seen this argument before. She adjusts her dupatta and continues muttering prayers.

The people in line stare at the father and son unabashedly. Indians, by and large, have no respect for quaint notions, such as personal boundaries. We embrace strangers, quarrelling families included. If the watching group could have jumped in and offered advice to the young lad, they would have. His accent is indecipherable to them, though, which handicaps the crowd somewhat.

Suddenly, the line moves forward. I sail forward, enveloped by a crowd of Sikhs. This is my first visit to a gurudwara. I am already favourably inclined to a faith that worships a holy book instead of the countless images of God that I am used to as a lifelong Hindu.

The inside of the temple has that strange combination of hush and buzz that is the hallmark of places of worship. Sikh music is beautiful. I hear it in the background as I move through the sacred spaces of the gurdwara. Roses are scattered around the holy book. Devotees move around, almost in a haze, praying and submitting themselves to the divine energy inside.

After spending half an hour inside, I walk around the holy tank. In one corner are a group of volunteers handing out glasses of water. In another are people from afar, resting under the eaves. Men and women step inside the tank to purify themselves. And finally, there is the entrance to the feeding area: the langar.

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The communal kitchen at Harmandir Sahib is large—yes, but curiously and disproportionately small given the number of people it feeds everyday. Some 50,000 people eat here on an average day. The number rises to 100,000 on festival days. Given these eye-popping numbers, the kitchens where all the food is prepared are relatively tiny—about the size of a small Bombay flat, but with none of the accompanying squabbling. In fact, the cooks here are supremely serene.

There are two kitchen areas: one where the dal is cooked in vats large enough for three grown men to crouch on top of each other. The second kitchen is where the roti assembly takes place. It is here that I land up: a South Indian of dubious culinary prowess, determined to prove my worth to volunteers who have perhaps been rolling out chapatis since they could hold a rolling-pin.

All religions are linked to certain ideas, which end up becoming stereotypes associated with them. These are core philosophies of the faith that are believed by the faithful. Hinduism, for instance, believes itself to be tolerant religion (fundamentalists notwithstanding) that welcomed people of all faiths to its shores over the centuries. Christianity and Zoroastrianism are linked to service through the establishment of schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Buddhism is linked with the idea of Zen, mindfulness, and meditation, all of which are the catchwords of current neuroscience. Sikhism, though, is irrevocably linked with community and feeding. No other faith is as generous and welcoming of the hungry as the Sikhs are, even though every faith has poor-feeding as one of its tenets. Indeed, by some accounts, the idea of langar itself was borrowed from the Chishti Sufis who popularized this practice all over India in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Persian word, langar, represents an asylum or sanctuary for the poor and destitute.

Guru Nanak’s genius lay in not just adopting the practice of feeding the poor, but also making it egalitarian—controversial given India’s caste proclivities at that time. The idea that people could sit together and have a meal, regardless of caste, creed, gender, class or religion was revolutionary in 16th century India when Sikhism was born. Today, however, the notion of langar is intertwined with Sikhism. What makes the practice so special is not just the fact that thousands of people sit beside each other and partake of a meal but also the fact that hundreds of people cook together in a community kitchen. It is this kitchen that is my first if tentative stop when I enter Harmandir Sahib.

The sound of the langar kitchen is the clattering of thousands of plates, cups and other stainless steel vessels being washed in the dishwashing area. To wash discarded, used plates requires a level of humility and service that this particular TamBrahm—raised on the idea of the impurity of discarded food—does not have. So I quickly walk through the other parts of the kitchen area. People sit in circles—chopping garlic, slicing onions, peeling carrots and potatoes, pulling off cauliflower florettes from its stem, and carrying large bowls of chopped vegetables to the other section where it will be cooked in even larger containers. An entire section is devoted to rotis, and it is here that I eventually settle, attracted by its warmth and comforting fragrance.

There is a clear division of labour. Some people simply roll the dough into small balls, another group presses them into perfectly round flatbreads, and the third group pops them over the flame to create fluffy rotis. I, ambitiously and foolhardily, sit in the rolling section. Almost immediately, a young, turban-clad boy brings me a plate of evenly divided dough. I begin rolling. It starts to look like the map of India.

A kindly woman sitting next to me says, “I think you need to start again.”

“In the south, we make rotis of different shapes,” I fudge and then feel bad for my subterfuge in a holy place.

Acchha,” she says, smile firmly in place.

I look down and determinedly roll more rotis—each one tracing a different map.

It is her smile that gets to me. I collapse my map of India into a round ball of dough and begin again. About 10 tries later, my roti too becomes round and even. I have to come all the way to Amritsar and sit in a community kitchen in order to learn to make a perfectly round roti, I tell myself ruefully. The approving smiles from the people all around me makes it worth it.

Adjoining the dal and roti kitchens are the washing area and the food prep section that are humming with activity. All together they are smaller than the dining halls where 5,000 of the faithful sit cross-legged on the floor to eat a simple but tasty meal of dal, roti, sabzi and sweet kheer. I join the queue that waits to enter the dining area. We are waved through in batches, and quickly—if undignifiedly—grab our spot on the floor.

An assembly line of volunteers serves food and collects discarded plates with a humility that is a paradoxical hallmark of this warrior-faith that emphasizes standing tall in the face of obstacles. Miri and Piri as they are called: twin actions that are represented in the intertwined swords. The word ‘miri’ comes from the Persian word, amir and represents royalty, wealth, nobility, and kingship. The word ‘pir’ refers to a sufi holy man. In the Sikh context, it represents the sant-sipahi, or warrior-saint: perfectly apt, given the history of how Sikh gurus have had to stand up to Islamic rule and (it must be said) torture.

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Two elder Sikhs collect finished plates and toss them like Frisbees into a giant vat. The leftover food is separated and the plates handed over to the washing area.

I too hand over my plate and walk out of the langar area.

How do you determine the strength of belief? Adherence to a religion can be the baseline. Adherence during times of global turmoil, when one faith is under siege, usually from members of a different faith is harder. Hardest of all is sticking to your religion during times of great personal crisis.

Back home in Bengaluru, I talk to my Sikh friends about their religion. As with all religions, the strength of personal belief is complicated and varying. Hardship can cause an increase in belief or it can be viewed as a betrayal, causing the devotee to forsake God forever.

One friend tells me about her parents who began their life as devout Sikhs. They lost their only son to a road accident when the boy was but twenty years old.

“Instead of questioning their religion, or feeling betrayed by the God that they had worshiped for so long, my parents gained all their strength from Sikhism,” said my friend. “It was their life-raft at the time of extraordinary difficulty. Not once did they question their faith. Indeed, it was their religion that saw them through the loss of my brother. It kept them sane. It allowed them to survive, to live.”

Isn’t this why the faithful cling to God? Because they cannot make sense of the crises and events that confront them? Because they realize that much of life is beyond their control?

Telling yourself that you are an atheist is simplistic, in my view. To gain succor from an imperfect faith and an elusive God offers the greatest spiritual (and psychological as per recent studies) reward.

Sikhism may be dominated by the idea of a warrior-saint but for the average devout Sikh, it is a peaceful path that keeps them from turning their rage outwards or inwards even when life hands them a devastating hand.

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