Soul Food: What Makes Sikh Communal Meal Of Langar So Special?
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MEHTA KALU, a revenue officer in late-15th century Talwandi (in present-day Pakistan), was a worried man. His son was nearly grown enough to take up a trade of his own, yet the lad had no worldliness about him. He preferred to reflect on spiritual ideas and on matters of the soul. He was humane where he should be hard-nosed; he shunned the dictums of caste and any other form of discrimination. 

Determined to make his son better prepared for a life of commerce, Mehta Kalu gave him a mission. He was handed over the not inconsiderable sum of 20 rupiyas and asked to travel to the next town; there, he would have to purchase spices and other wholesale goods that could then be sold in Talwandi. The father sent a servant along with the boy, to ensure he would adhere to the instructions. 

The son began his journey, exhorted until the last minute by Mehta Kalu to “strike the best bargain possible”. His father’s orders very much on his mind, the boy and the servant accompanying him made brisk progress towards town. But then they passed through a woodland area — a quiet and serene place where many holy men sought spiritual rest and refuge. 

The young lad was — as expected — immediately entranced by them. He observed closely as they meditated, performed yogic exercises and reflected on the natural bounty around them. However, most of the sages were dressed in austere, threadbare garments; the aura of peace that surrounded them could not disguise their gaunt physical appearance. The boy was struck with an idea: why not give all of his money to these sages? Surely they could use it?

Even as his servant protested and reminded him of his father’s injunction, the boy rushed to the feet of a holy man who seemed to be the head of the group. He laid his rupiyas at the sage’s feet and beseeched him to accept it as a humble material offering. The sage smiled and gently refused the money: The holy men had no use for it. Still, the boy entreated until the sage gave in. He told the youth that the group would accept food as an offering. 

The boy rushed to town. His servant reminded him once more of what his task that day was, but seeing how fixed his young master was on the idea of being of service to the holy men, the older man gave in. They arranged for a full meal that they then carried back to the sages in the woods. The seers were pleased at this earnest display of devotion from one so young and blessed him. Until this heaven-sent meal, they had consumed no food for over seven days.

The boy and the servant then set back off towards Talwandi. The youth skipped along, overjoyed at having fulfilled his father’s dictum: he had, to his way of thinking, made the best possible use of the funds. Surely, no bargain could be better than the one he had struck. It was only when he reached the outskirts of his village that he began to have doubts about whether or not his father would share his sentiments. Sending the servant on ahead, the young man sat down under the shade of a tree and brooded on what reception awaited him at home. 

Seeing the servant walk into the family home without his son, Mehta Kalu immediately knew what must have occurred. He rushed out, found his son, and delivered a swift discipline. It was only the intercession of his daughter (who Mehta Kalu’s wife Tripta had sent, fearing just such a harsh ‘greeting’ for her son) that assuaged the father’s anger. He eventually forgave his son. 

The father may not have appreciated the youth’s gesture much, but more than 500 years later, the voluntary feeding of hungry souls continues to be an enduring tenet of the Sikh religion. Guru Nanak, who used up all his money on that long-ago day to procure food for the holy men — even knowing it would invite his father’s ire — laid great store on the sharing of food. Gurudwaras the world over serve communal meals — langars — where people sit in a pangat (queue) and eat the simple, wholesome fare (dal, roti, fresh vegetables, salad and a sweet) that has been prepared by volunteers. The langar is open to all, irrespective of class, caste or creed. It is a practice rooted in the truth that food has the power to nourish not only our bodies, but also our very souls.