I look around the unfamiliar room, rubbing my eyes and complaining about being woken up at 5.30am. We are in Amritsar, having just got in the night before after an endless train journey (or what eight hours in a confined space may seem like to a ten-year old). My mother makes another attempt at getting me out of bed by confiscating the blanket I’ve been camping under. Smug with success, she ushers me into the bathroom and 20 minutes later, we are on our way to the Golden Temple.
All roads in the city seem to run in the same direction. Several other people are out and about at the ungodly hour. Still groggy, I can hear excited voices around me, cooing about how beautiful the sunrise will be and how wonderful the food will taste. That last part piques my interest, because even at a young age, I clearly have my priorities right. This pilgrimage is sounding more and more like a picnic, I think to myself. And then I see it from the corner of my eye, a shining beacon in the middle of chaos, where the entire populace seems to be flocking to. Mellow strains of Gurbani waft through the air. I remove my shoes and dip my feet in a freezing pool of water to enter the Sri Harmandir Sahib complex. There is an instant connection, which is why I can still feel the goosebumps 23 years later.
As we follow the crowds and weave through the inner sanctum, a collective sense of peace envelops us. Even for a non-believer, it’s the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself that sweeps over. And then, like a reward for the long queues and unfaltering patience, we emerge out of the main temple to find volunteers scooping out conical mounds of kada prasad onto outstretched palms. It takes only one tentative bite of the sweet offering to become hooked. The flavours are oddly familiar–a lot like halwa and yet so much more–but the ritual of it all is new and intriguing. Dare I go back for seconds?
I grew up in a (very) Hindu Delhi home, but my family’s connection to Amritsar and consequently, the Golden Temple, ran deeper than blood. By way of immigration, marriage, and, eventually business, there was always someone traveling to and fro on a monthly basis. When they returned, along with them would arrive the three staples: kada prasad from Harmandir Sahib, motichoor ladoo from Bansal Sweets and the infamous chur chur naan. Although it's said to be created in Amritsar, several dhabas claim the chur chur naan was their original idea. The naan has even made its way from Amritsar to Delhi; the most popular places to serve them in the city continue to be Kesar and Chawla De Mashoor Special Naan.
Thanks to all these edible gifts, for a large part of my pre-teen life, I only associated the city with food. And by my second visit to Amritsar, at age 14, I began to realise the deep bond between Sikhism and the concept of feeding the community. During my most recent return, two years ago, I finally saw the sense of brotherhood weighing in against the historical significance of this gleaming edifice. It left me even more in awe of the Guru ka langar. Literally translating to "Guru's community kitchen", the practice was started around 1480 by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. He popularised it as a means to break away from socio-economic inequality and considered serving a hot meal to a hungry person a service above all else.
While I marvelled at Sikhism's culinary endowments, on another side of the continent, my future husband found solace in his neighbourhood Gurudwara in Dubai. As a not-so-NRI Sindhi kid still searching for his roots, the friendly settings, shared language and the langar kept drawing him in. His mother–a great cook–often volunteered in the Gurudwara kitchen for hours and still yearns to go back and do it again. I asked why this humble meal was so important to them. "It reminded us of home!"
Amrita Kaur, a Sikh by birth who now practices Buddhism, echoes the sentiment. Known as AmritaOfLife to her 30k Instagram followers, the lady with the quirky glasses and string of new-age recipes hardly paints a pious picture. Yet when you ask her about her relationship with her ancestral faith, she recalls how the kada prasad is sacred to her. “I might not be religious, but I still get nostalgic on special occasions. A few years ago, I found myself in Chennai at The Farm (a 70-acre integrated property with its own dairy, a poultry farm, vegetable fields and plantations) on Gurpurab and decided to make my own kada prasad to celebrate,” she tells me. “I used fresh ghee from their cows, completed ardas and shared the prasad with the entire staff. Miles away from my home in Indore or my adopted city of Bombay, it felt so comforting.” This is telling of the non-denominational nature of Sikhism and its tenants of partaking with people regardless of caste, creed or sex; also that the power of food to unite a community is unparalleled.
Amrita’s family continues to uphold the tradition first propagated by Guru Nanak himself. Her late grandfather used to have a small Gurudwara and run a makeshift langar kitchen in their backyard. He would write shabad, hold a kirtan and cook along with the entire household every Sunday. Today, her mother continues to pay reverence and prepare kada prasad every Thursday. “My mother isn’t old school, but she has strict rules for preparing the Prasad. The ghee used for it is always kept separate, she covers her head with a dupatta and doesn’t talk to anyone during the preparation, and of course, she doesn’t taste the prasad. Once done, she’ll pack it in my niece’s school tiffin and then lovingly serve it to everyone else.”
After being scoffed at by a stern sevadar, who I had bothered for another serving, I greedily lick off the last remnants of the kada prasad while being escorted to another part of the Golden Temple. It’s 7.45am and we are outside the community dining hall. Oh great, another queue, I think with an eye-roll. By now, awake thanks to the sugar hit, lethargy is replaced by a swing in my step. Yet, we crawl along slowly before reaching the end of our wait time, signalled by a kind-faced woman handing out plates and spoons. Inside is a massive hall full of people. We find a spot, sit down on the floor and service begins. Like a well-synchronised dance, volunteers come over and ladle piping hot dal, aloo sabzi, rice and kheer onto my plate. My mother, sitting across, signals that I hold out my hands in a folded gesture and—almost as if by magic—a roti lands in it. I eat, along with several thousands of others, and it feels like a warm light has been cast over me.
This story is the second in our issue F A I T H. Read the third here.