Offering free meals to anyone and everyone is a great Sikh tradition known as of Langar (लंगर). It has remained a core part of the Sikh faith from inception. Every Sikh temple or Gurdwara (गुरुद्वारा ) around the world offers people a free meal at any time regardless of sex, colour or religion. There are no rituals involved and everyone eats together. The aim is to inculcate the feeling of equality amongst all, a Sikh teaching around equality.
When the state of Kerala faced disastrous floods in August 2018, Sikh volunteers from the UK- based philanthropist group – Khalsa Aid – reached Kerala and setup a Langar at Kochi for some 3,000 people. On seeing the plight of the people, they expanded the Langar relief to serve 13,000 people twice a day.
These Sikh volunteers, joined hands with Kochi administration, took over the kitchen at Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium at Kochi, where the aid materials were pouring in. Food supplies and cereals like wheat, rice, vegetables poured in, but with no one to cook a meal. The Sikh volunteers purchased spices and utensils, took over the kitchen at the stadium and kept the kitchen fires going. The food from this kitchen was distributed at various relief camps for the needy.
Hardly any media or social media showed the contribution of the Sikh volunteers in bringing succour to the flood affected. The Kerala Government and administrative officials seemed ignorant about the contribution of the Sikh volunteers as there was hardly any gratitude expressed for these volunteers.
Let us now turn a few pages of Kerala history to 1923.
As per the caste system prevalent in Kerala (then broadly divided into Malabar, Cochin and Travancore kingdoms) and the rest of India of that time, low-caste Hindus were not allowed entry into the temples. They were not even allowed even to walk on the roads that led to the temples.
In the Kakinada meet of the Congress Party in 1923, TK Madhavan presented a report citing the discrimination that the depressed caste people were facing in Kerala and need to abolish untouchabiity – a practice in which some lower caste people are kept at a distance, denied of social equality and made to suffer from some disabilities for their touch, is considered to be contaminating or polluting the higher caste people.
In Kerala, a committee was formed comprising people of different castes to fight untouchability. Satyagraha movement began on 30th March 1924 at the Mahadeva Temple at Vaikom town in Travancore, which denied entry of lower caste people – mostly Ezhavas. Satyagraha is a form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance and the term was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi to oust the British from India. People who offered satyagraha are called Satyagrahis . The Satyagrahis in batches entered the temple and were arrested by the police.
On 01 October 1924, a group of forward castes Hindus marched in a procession and submitted a petition to the Regent Maharani Sethulakshmi Bai of Travancore with approximately 25,000 signatures for allowing entry to the temple for everyone.
On 23 November 1925, all the gates of the temple were opened to Hindus except the Eastern gate. In 1928, backward castes got the right to walk on public roads leading to all temples in Travancore. This was the first time that an organised movement was conducted on such a massive scale for the basic rights of the untouchables and other backward castes in Kerala.
As the sathyagraha commenced in 1923, a few Sikh volunteers reached Vaikom in support of the demonstrators. They established a Langar there to feed the Sathyagrahis. How they reached Vaikom from Punjab in those days with a scant railway network and how they cooked food for Keralites who only ate rice got to be researched.
After successfully completing the Satyagraha and after the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Sikhs remained in Vaikom. Some Ezhava youth were attracted to the concepts of the Sikhism. It is believed that many Ezhavas joined the religion. Many families later returned to Hinduism and the number of Sikh Ezhavas dwindled.
In Sikhism, the practice of the Langar is believed to have been started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. The concept of Langar was prevalent in Punjab from the 12th Century – from the time of Baba Farid and Sufi saints. Guru Angad, the second Guru institutionalised it for all Sikh temples. Guru Amar Das, the third Guru established langar as a prominent institution and required people to dine together irrespective of their caste and social rank. He insisted on all those who visited him attend laṅgar before they could speak to him.
From the beginning till date, Sikhs have followed the words of their Gurus and have been rendering yeoman service to humanity by providing food not only in their places of worship, but also to the needy wherever and whenever it is required.
Hats off to the spirit and commitment of this great community of Sikhs.