GURŪ KĀ LAṄGAR (lit., laṅgar or refectory of the Gurū) is a community kītchen run in the name of the Gurū. It is usually attached to a gurdwārā. Laṅgar, a Persian word, means an almshouse', 'an asylum for the poor and the destitute', 'a public kitchen kept by a great man for his followers and dependants, holy persons and the needy.' Some scholars trace the word laṅgar to Sanskrit analgṛh ( cooking place). In Persian, the specific term laṅgar has been in use in an identical sense. In addition to the word itself, the institution of laṅgar is also traceable in the Persian tradition. Laṅgars were a common feature of the Sūfī centres in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Even today some dargāhs, or shrines commemorating Sūfī saints, run laṅgars, like Khwājā Mu'in ud-Dīn Chishtī's at Ajmer.
In Sikhism, the institution of laṅgar owes its origin to the founder, Gurū Nānak himself. Community kitchens came into existence with the saṅgats or holy fellowships of disciples which sprang up at many places in his time. Sikhs sat in paṅgat (lit., a row) without distinctions of caste or status, to share a common meal prepared in the laṅgar. Besides the kitchen where the food was cooked, laṅgar stood for the victuals as well as for the hall where these were eaten.
The disciples brought the offerings and contributed the labour of their hands to prepare and serve the food. Gurū Nānak and his successors attached a great deal of importance to laṅgar and it became, in their hands, a potent means of social reform. The former gave it the central place in the dharamsālā he established at Kartārpur at the end of his preaching tours. He worked on his farm to provide for himself and for his family and to contribute his share to the common laṅgar. He had such of his disciples as could afford to set up dharamsālās and laṅgars. Among them were Sajjaṇ Ṭhag, then lost to godly ways, and a wealthy nobleman, Malik Bhāgo, both of whom had converted to his message. Bhūmīā, formerly a dacoit, was asked by Gurū Nānak to turn his kitchen into a laṅgar in the name of God. A condition was laid upon Rājā Shivnābh of Saṅglādīp (Sri Lanka) that he open a laṅgar before he could see him (Gurū Nānak) . The Rājā, it is said, happily complied.
Gurū Aṅgad, Nānak II, further extended the scope of the institution. He helped with cooking and serving in the laṅgar. His wife, Mātā Khīvī, looked after the pilgrims and visitors with the utmost attention. Such was her dedication to work in the laṅgar that it came to be known after her name as Mātā Khīvī Jī kā Laṅgar. The bard Balvaṇḍ pays homage to her in his verses, in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. To quote the stanza:
Blest, sayeth Balvaṇḍ, is Khīvī [the Gurū's wife],
Comforting by far is her presence to the disciple,
Amply she distributes food in the Gurū's laṅgar.
The fare includes khīr, rice cooked in milk and ghee,
Which has the taste of ambrosia itself.
The Vār by Sattā and Balvaṇḍ also applauds Gurū Amar Dās's laṅgar wherein "ghee and flour abounded." In spite of rich variety of food served in his laṅgar, Gurū Amar Dās ate a simple meal earned by the labour of his own hands. "What was received from the disciples was consumed the same day and nothing was saved for the morrow." Contributing towards the Gurū kā Laṅgar became an established custom for the Sikhs. Partaking of food in Gurū kā Laṅgar was made a condition for disciples and visitors before they could see the Gurū. Gurū Amar Dās's injunction was: "pahile paṅgat pāchhe saṅgat" -- first comes eating together, then meeting together." Laṅgar thus gave practical expression to the notion of equality. Emperor Akbar, who once visited Gurū Amar Dās at Goindvāl, had to eat, out of the common kitchen like any other pilgrim. As the Mahimā Prakāsh records, the Emperor refused to step on the silks spread out for him by his servants when going to call on the Gurū. He turned aside the lining with his own hands and walked to the Gurū's presence barefoot.
Bhāī Jeṭhā, who came into spiritual succession as Gurū Rām Dās, served food in Gurū Amar Dās's laṅgar, brought firewood from the forest and drew water from the well. By such deeds of devoted service, he gained enlightenment and became worthy of the confidence of Gurū Amar Dās. Laṅgar served to train the disciples in sevā and to overcome class distinctions.
The institution of laṅgar had become an integral part of the Sikh movement by now and, with the increase in its numbers, it gained further popularity and strength. With the development under Gurū Rām Dās and Gurū Arjan of Amritsar as the central seat of the Sikh faith, the capacity of the local Gurū kā Laṅgar increased manifold. Sikhs came from far-off places to see their Gurū and to lend a hand with the construction work. They were all served food in Gurū kā Laṅgar.
Gurū Hargobind and Gurū Tegh Bahādur travelled extensively in north and northeast India. This led to the establishment of many new saṅgats. Each saṅgat meant an additional laṅgar. In the reign of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, the institution of laṅgar acquired further significance. At Anandpur, the new seat of Sikhism, a number of laṅgars were in existence, each under the supervision of a devoted and pious Sikh. Food was available in these laṅgars day and night.
Once Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, disguised as an ordinary pilgrim, made a surprise check of the laṅgars at Anandpur. He discovered that Bhāī Nānd Lāl's laṅgar was the best maintained. He complimented him and asked others to emulate his standards of dedication and service. One of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's commandments was that a Sikh visiting another Sikh's door must be served food, without hesitation or delay. Another of his sayings ran : "Gharīb dā mūṅh gurū kī golak hai -- to feed a hungry mouth is to feed the Gurū." This spirit of common sharing and of mutual co-operation and service was the underlying principle of the Sikh tradition of laṅgar.
"Keep the laṅgar ever open" are reported to have been the last words of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh spoken to Bhāī Santokh Siṅgh before he passed away at Nāndeḍ. One of the lines in his Dasam Granth reads : "Deg tegh jag me doū chalai -- may laṅgar (charity) and sword (instrument of securing justice) together prevail in the world." The first Sikh coin minted in the eighteenth century carried the Persian maxim : "Deg tegh fateh -- may laṅgar and sword be ever triumphant."
The laṅgar continued to perform its distinctive role in days of the direst persecution. Bands of Sikhs wandering in deserts and jungles would cook whatever they could get, and sit in a paṅgat to share it equally. Later, when the Sikhs came into power, the institution of laṅgar was further consolidated because of increased number of gurdwārās running the laṅgar, and assignment of jāgīrs to gurdwārās for this purpose.
Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh made grants of jāgīrs to gurdwārās for the maintenance of laṅgars. Similar endowments were created by other Sikh rulers as well. Today, practically every gurdwārā has a laṅgar supported by the community in general. In smaller gurdwārās cooked food received from different households may comprise the laṅgar. In any case, no pilgrim or visitor will miss food at meal time in a gurdwārā. Sharing a common meal sitting in a paṅgat is for a Sikh an act of piety. So is his participation in cooking or serving food in the laṅgar and in cleaning the used dishes. The Sikh ideal of charity is essentially social in conception. A Sikh is under a religious obligation to contribute one-tenth of his earning for the welfare of the community. He must also contribute the service of his hands whenever he can, that rendered in a laṅgar being the most meritorious.
The institution of Gurū kā Laṅgar has served the community in many ways. It has ensured the participation of women and children in a task of service of mankind. Women play an important role in the preparation of meals and the children join in serving food to the paṅgat. Laṅgar teaches the etiquette of sitting and eating in a community. Again, laṅgar has played a great part in upholding the virtue of equality of all human beings.
Besides the laṅgars attached to gurdwārās, there are improvised open-air laṅgars at the time of festivals and gurpurbs. Specially arranged laṅgars on such occasions are probably the most largely-attended community meals anywhere in the world. There might be a hundred thousand people partaking of food at a single meal in one such laṅgar. Wherever Sikhs are, they have established their laṅgars. In their prayers, the Sikhs seek from the Almighty the favour : "Loh Laṅgar tapde rahin -- may the hot plates, the laṅgars, remain ever in service."