Some people go to saunas for a relaxing treat, others live it in their daily lives with little escape. Life in India is sweltering but nothing is quite as blistering as the massive kitchen of the Gurudwāra in Delhi, a temple run by volunteers and Sikhs (disciples who follow the teachings of one God and the Ten Gurus.) At the Gurudwāra, all shoes and socks are removed upon entrance to the temple. What would be considered unsanitary in the United States is of little concern at this holy site, and most of India.
I believe the first thing I should do for you is clarify how a Sikh shows his faith, as I’m sure many of you have seen one before and mistaken them for other religions, or maybe even inappropriate stereotypes. A Sikh male does wrap his uncut hair in a turban and does not trim his beard, though they do sometimes train it to stay neat. These are witnessed through their 5 vows: kach, wearing under drawers; karā, a bangle symbolic of strength; kirpān, a small dagger; kes’, their long hair; and the kanghā, a comb for their hair. Knowing these five things makes them very identifiable and I even noticed one getting on our plane to Hyderabad as I was writing this.
Back to the Guduwāra, followers enter the elaborate temple to give their praise and whatever offerings they may provide. Large silver bins hold lentil, sugar and flour donations. While we may take our cans to the local church food drive in America, people in the temple take what they have in their means whether they drop in a scoop of sugar or bring a sealed bag of goods. To us, this may seem barbarian to not know where these particles of non-perishables journeyed from, but in India they take and use everything with no complaint.
After witnessing the Holy Book and donation receptacle, we shuffled out to the burning marble walkways, still barefoot, and jumping on our dirty toes to avoid the heat. In the courtyard area there is a large pool, a few acres in size. People were bathing and swimming in the holy water after giving their praise in the hot climate. Upon further approach to the water, we discovered mass amounts of koi and minnows sashaying through the people. This stood out to us as another step towards a diseased life of germs, especially since the next activity was meal time.
A special custom at this temple is that the meal is free to the public in equal capacity. We were fortunate to witness the entire meal preparation process from the raw goods being donated, to actually enjoying the prepared blessings. Never will we ever think anywhere is as hot in India as it was for the people slaving away over the large mixing bowls that looked nearly like a hot tub for two.
Still barefoot, we padded our way through the langar, the common kitchen established by Gurū Granth Sāhib, with sweat dripping down every nook and cranny. The blazing fires under the large pots were on our left, and men were flipping flatbreads with 7 foot spatulas over a large griddle on a platform to the right. For volunteer work, they were truly laborious in their intents.
Around the corner and slightly away from the fiery infernos, women were rolling the dough for the flatbreads. As most people are in India, these ladies were intrigued by our American presence in their kitchen, so I waved at them with a thank you. They immediately waved back and wanted us to join them on the ground in their criss-crossed due diligence of contributing to the temple. While I would have sat down with them in a heartbeat to learn their ways and provide what I could, one of the downsides of traveling with a large group is the lack of flexibility. Each of us must sacrifice for the sake of the group and stick to the schedule. We had to move on to the next task, which for us, was consuming the concoctions of the kitchen.
The dining hall was filled with long rows of rugs running the length of the room. These were not like the exotic silk rugs of Jaipur. These were the knotty handmade throw rugs that we might keep on our very own patios in the summer. Strung from the ceiling was a bad situation of Party City gone wild. Flashy foil streamers sparkled across the room, creating a cheesy decor in comparison to the elaborate golden ceilings in the temple. We sat cross legged on the rugs as people filed in through the doors.
The purpose of sitting on the floors is that everyone is equal. There is no caste, class, or difference among the people once they enter the door. We all sat together, butt to butt and side to side, with the only exclusion being the elderly or crippled who could no longer reach the floors. These people were still barefoot, had dropped their donations in some form, bathed in the koi pool, and were now going to partake in a meal at no expense with a room full of strangers.
My desire to wash my hands and hide my dirty feet was strong, but in India you just have to be flexible. Do as the Romans do, or in this case, hide your fears and go Sikh. Tucking my dirty feet under me, I grabbed a silver tray from the volunteers and waited for my serving to come around. Since we had seen the large vats of food being made, we weren’t really sure how it would be served to a massive room of occupants seated in the ground. Within a few minutes, Sikhs were coming around with buckets filled to the brim with green, mixed lentils holding deep ladles with long handles to pass it out.
Sitting on the floor and having a scoop of green chum fall on my tray gave me every feeling in the world that this is what it would have been like to be in an orphanage. We were then handed one of the tortilla-like flatbreads to go with our green goo and expected to not be wasteful. I’ve always considered myself to be a human garbage disposal, especially after my years of dumpster diving for donuts in my undergrad. I’ll try just about anything. Without (too much) hesitation, I put a full spoon of green lentils to my lips.
In general, I really love the Indian food. It’s mostly vegetarian and their spices are like nothing in the USA. The green slop was much more generous to our mouths than any of us expected. I succeeded in not wasting a morsel, but out of fear of the unsanitary conditions, I did not ask for seconds. While most people in the room asked for multiple servings, we used the rest of the time to observe the room.
People continued to stare at us in the temple and wave politely so that they would know we could also see them. Our presence seems to cause a stir in most places we go, whether people are seeking our money or they are lead to us out of fascination. One child was slipping out of his head covering and running away from his mother mid-meal. Many others were intent on consuming their food and giving thanks to the providers. It was a rather dirty situation by the time we were done. The cold lentil mixture was dried to our hands as well as the floor, rugs, and trays. After thanking the volunteers, we stood up to go outside where there was a hand rinsing station.
It had rained while we were inside and the marble was terribly slick. We carefully scooted our feet along the mats to make our way to ‘dessert.’ None of us really knew what this post-meal delicacy would be, but we focused on the now difficult trek to get to the booth.
Walking up to the booth we were instructed to reach out our hands. A man with a small spatula slapped a wad of substance into our palm that I can only describe as feeling like a hot dog turd. I had just eaten on a dirty floor, had no soap to wash my hands and was about to eat this peanut butter looking ball from between my fingers where the spatula had squished it.
Still not one to miss out on a life experience, I cupped the warm Play-Dough to my mouth. HEAVEN. I was pleasantly surprised that my favorite thing I have tried so far was this hot, buttery, steaming turd off my filthy hand. All it was was a mixture of wheat flour, sugar, and ghee. The presentation was a little lacking but the execution worked.
Our experience was quite eye opening and absurd, but I felt very in-tune with the locals. Besides the stares, we were equal. The point of the temple meal was that everyone was equal, and we were treated all the same. For anyone who wants to travel like an Indian and immerse in the culture, this was a very unique experience.
(Notes on Sikhism come from Fred W. Clothey’s Religion in India: A Historical Introduction, pages 155-159)