The Sikh community worldwide recently celebrated the 550th Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji, their first Guru. Gurpurab (literally, the Day of the Guru) marks the birthday celebration for each of the Ten Sikh Gurus, with Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab being celebrated with particular fervor and special prayers. Guru Nanak is considered the Founder of Sikhism; he instituted a way of life to bring amity between diverse communities (Hindus and Muslims predominantly), social classes and castes emphasizing that all humans are the same and there is but one God, who is omnipresent. Guru Nanak’s Mool Mantar/Mantra (basic or essential teaching) opens with Ik Onkar, Satnam (There is but One God, that is Truth).
Guru Nanak ji introduced langar seva (community kitchen service) to uphold the principle of equality, encouraging community members to contribute according to their resources and help feed those in need. Vegetarian meals are prepared by volunteers in the local Gurdwara/Gurudwara (literally, door to the Guru; Sikh place of worship) and is offered to all who walk in, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, societal class, caste or gender. The more established, larger gurudwaras are able to offer langar round-the-clock, every day. Diners finish their meal, wash their hands and line up to serve others who follow them in a remarkable display of seva (service).
I am no expert but learned from my grandmothers that there was a long-standing practice in the Punjab whereby Hindu (mainly Khatri – Punjabi way of saying Kshatriya – warrior caste) families would formally arrange for the baptism of their eldest son to become a Sikh. They believed this was done to maintain the strong bonds between the Hindu-Sikh communities. However, a number of political and economic factors have also been enumerated to explain this practice. Without delving into detail suffice to mention that it served as a means to counter the “Divide and Rule” policies used by the British rulers especially after the 1857 Mutiny (as termed by the British) or First War of Independence (according to the Indians). It also afforded the Hindu families a way around the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 promulgated by the British, enabling them to retain their agricultural land holdings. My maternal grandmother came from a Sikh family and while we were open to all religious institutions and beliefs, as a child I recall my mother reciting the Japji Sahib (morning prayer) and Sukhmani (literally, Jewel of Peace) as a part of her morning rituals. My paternal grandmother followed all the traditional Hindu rituals but also participated in the akhand path (continuous recitation, without a break) of the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib, extending over several days to commemorate special occasions.
There are hundreds of persons, communities, corporate entities and religious organizations providing yeomen service to alleviate the suffering of the less-fortunate. They must all be lauded and deserve our support. A number of Food Banks and similar organizations around the world help feed local communities in need, every single day.
On this Gurpurab however, I cannot help but recount the manner in which Sikhs globally, have risen to help those in need. A couple of years ago, BBC had estimated that gurudwaras worldwide distributed over six million meals a day. Vans parked in Central London distribute langar to the city’s homeless; Sikh organizations are at the Syrian borders feeding thousands of refugees in the war-torn region; Sikh volunteers were among the first to help organize food and aid for Rohingya refugees at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border; members of this community helped house, feed and provide safe transportation for Kashmiri students when they came under attack in India earlier this year; following the demonetisation of Indian currency in 2018, gurudwaras were offering langar to street vendors, scooter-rickshaw and cab operators whose business suffered because of non-availability of cash. The holiest Sikh shrine, Golden Temple is estimated to serve 100,000 free meals a day, with this number doubling over the weekends.
My personal favorite component of a langar is the scrumptious, piping-hot aate da halwa karhaa parshaad (made of wheat flour, clarified butter and sugar). Our children recall how their dadi (paternal grandmother) would lovingly make aate da halwa for them; she would start to roast the flour in the clarified butter and call out to them periodically to check if the aroma of the halwa had reached their bedroom upstairs for it would tell her if the dish was ready! Delving into my childhood memories, I recall her humming a song by the legendary singer K.L. Saigal when she would be in the kitchen. I remembered only the odd word from the lyrics and snatches of the tune but thanks to my persistent search over several weeks assisted by Aunt Google, I was finally able to track the song to the 1939 movie Dushman! She would also sing it to gently chastise me when I was being a brat! I can almost savor the flavor of my mum’s halwa as I listen to her favorite melody from 80 years ago!
|Preet main hai jeeven jokhom||In love, life is in peril|
|Ke jaise kolhu mein sarson||Just like sesame seeds in an (oil) press|
|Bhor suhani chanchal baalak,||(In) the lovely dawn is a mischievous lad|
|ladkaayi dikhlaaye||displaying his childishness|
|Haath se baithaa gadhe khilone||Using his hands, he sculpts toys|
|Paanv se todat jaaye||Breaking them with his feet|
|Voh toh hai, voh to hai ik moorakh baalak||He is a silly lad|
|Tu toh nahin naadaan||(But) you are not foolish|
|Aap banaaye aap bigaade||Making and breaking (things)|
|Yeh nahin teri shaan||This is not your nature|
|Aisaa kyoon, phir aisaa kyoon||Why, pray why (does this happen) again?|