Langar Tradition Expresses Key Sikh Principles

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By Farah Akbar

Dalvir Kaur and her friend Balvinder Kaur don’t mind cleaning up the dirty dishes in the large kitchen of a Queens gurudwara.

“I want to do more work,” Dalvir Kaur said with a smile.

A few feet away, Daljit Singh is drying dishes with a hand towel. The 38-year old construction worker, who wears a turban, says that this type of work makes his “heart happy.”

The three individuals are just some of the devout Sikhs who volunteer their time at the Sikh Cultural Society’s “langar,” or free kitchen, located in the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill. They assist in the preparation of thousands of free meals a week at the Sikh temple, or "gurudwara," where food is served almost around the clock.

Every gurudwara in the world, no matter how large or small, has facilities to distribute free meals to the community. It is considered to be an honor to help cook and serve food to anyone that enters the langar.

'Eating Langar is a Blessing'

At the Sikh Cultural Center--a sprawling complex in a city that is home to one of the largest population of Sikhs outside of India--Indian lentils, flatbreads, rice and colorful curries (all vegetarian) are served from gigantic pots onto individual trays. Attendees sit side-by-side on the floor and eat with their hands.

Balbir Rathor, a retired mechanical engineer, told NBC News he travels every week from his Long Island home to the Richmond Hill gurudwara to worship. Eating langar here puts him in a spiritual state of mind, he says, and is an activity he looks forward to.

“Eating langar is even more special than eating at home with my own family,” said Rathor, 73, as men around him poured water and heaped dollops of lentils and basmati rice onto his tin tray. "Eating langar is a blessing."

Sikh women pray in the large temple area at the Sikh Temple in Richmond Hill, Queens on Sunday, October 11th 2015.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

There are currently about 700,000 Sikhs living in the United States who, like Rathor and the volunteers at the Sikh Cultural Society, have built their lives and careers across the country for decades.

But according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), Sikh Americans have often been targets of discrimination, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

SALDEF notes that it has been difficult to know the true number of hate crimes against Sikh Americans because specific statistics were unavailable until recently. In March, the Department of Justice and the FBI announced it would begin tracking hate crimes against Sikh Americans, as well as against Hindu and Arab Americans.

The largest hate crime to take place against Sikhs on American soil happened three years ago on the morning of August 5th, 2012, at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.

What started off as an ordinary day as local Sikhs gathered for service and prepared for Sunday school classes turned deadly when a gunman opened fire, killing six before turning the gun on himself.

A group of women and children were later found hiding inside a pantry in the kitchen where they sought cover.

The women had been busy before two terrified children ran to the kitchen, alerting them about the gunman.

They were hard at work preparing the day’s langar meal.

Women makes chapatis at the Sikh Temple in Richmond Hill, Queens on Sunday, October 11th 2015.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

'I Volunteer Here Only to Please God'

Langar is about more than just eating free Indian food: the tradition of the community meal is as old as the Sikh religion itself--a religion that originated in the Punjab region of present-day India and Pakistan.

As the story goes, a young man was given 20 rupees by his father with the expectation that the son would use it to turn a profit. Instead, he used the money to feed hungry people he met, proclaiming that there was no venture more profitable than feeding his fellow man and engaging in selfless service.

The man’s name was Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, which is now the world's fifth largest religion. His unselfish act is considered the first langar meal in the Sikh tradition.

A woman eats food at the langar at the Sikh Temple in Richmond Hill, Queens on Sunday, October 11th 2015.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

“Many poor and hungry people come here to eat,” Gurmeet Singh Gill, a manager at the Sikh Cultural Society, told NBC News.

“We do not ask anyone any questions," he said, adding that some non-Sikhs also come to the gurudwara to eat, which is an expression of the Sikh principle of equality.

The langar institution, which is paid for by donations made by congregants, is based on the three golden rules of Sikhism: to earn by honest means, to give to charity, and to remember God at all times.

"If I work with my hands, then God will keep my family healthy and happy," Dalvir Kaur said of her work at the Sikh Cultural Society. "I volunteer here only to please God."