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Golden Temple's langar: World's largest free eatery
Each visitor gets a wholesome #vegetarian #meal, served by volunteers who embody India’s religious mosaic
The groaning, clattering machines never stop, transforming 12 tonnes of whole wheat flour every day into nearly a quarter-million discs of flatbread called roti. These purpose-built contraptions, each 20 ft long, extrude the dough, roll it flat, then send it down a gas-fired conveyor belt, spitting out a never-ending stream of hot, floppy, perfectly round bread.
Soupy lentils, three and a third tonnes of them, bubble away in vast cauldrons, stirred by bearded, barefoot men wielding wooden spoons the size of canoe paddles. The pungent, savoury bite wafting through the air comes from 1,700 pounds of onions and 132 pounds of garlic, sprinkled with 330 pounds of fiery red chilies.
It is lunchtime at what may be the world’s largest free eatery, the langar, or community kitchen at Amritsar’s glimmering Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Everything is ready for the big rush. Thousands of volunteers have scrubbed the floors, chopped onions, shelled peas and peeled garlic. At least 40,000 metal plates, bowls and spoons have been washed, stacked and are ready to go.
Anyone can eat for free here, and many, many people do. On a weekday, about 80,000 come. On weekends, almost twice as many people visit. Each visitor gets a wholesome vegetarian meal, served by volunteers who embody India’s religious and ethnic mosaic. “This is our tradition,” said Harpinder Singh, the 45-year-old manager of this huge operation. “Anyone who wants can come and eat.”
India is not only the world’s largest democracy, it also is one of the most spiritually diverse nations. It was born in a horrific spasm of religious bloodshed when British India was torn in two to create a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. Yet from the moment of its independence, India has been a resolutely secular nation and has managed to accommodate an extraordinary range of views on such fundamental questions as the nature of humanity, the existence of God and the quality of the soul.
Indeed, few places in India demonstrate so clearly the country’s genius for diversity and tolerance, the twin reasons that India — despite its fractures and fissures — has remained one nation. Sikhism, which emerged in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century, strongly rejects the notion of caste, which lies at the core of Hinduism.
The Golden Temple, a giant complex of marble and glittering gold that sits at the heart of this sprawling, hectic city near the border with Pakistan, seeks to embody this principle. Nowhere is it more evident than in the community kitchen, where everyone, no matter his religion, wealth or social status, is considered equal.
Guru Amar Das created the community kitchen during his time as the third Sikh guru in the 16th century. Its purpose, he said, was to place all of humanity on the same plane. At the temple’s museum, one painting shows the wife of one of the gurus serving common people, “working day and night in the kitchen like an ordinary worker,” the caption says.
Volunteerism and community support are other central tenets of Sikhism expressed in the langar. When the Mughal emperor Akbar tried to give Guru Amar Das a platter of gold coins to support the kitchen, he refused to accept them, saying the kitchen “is always run with the blessings of the Almighty.”
Ashok Kumar, a Hindu with a scraggly beard, has been coming to the kitchen for the past five years — all day, almost every day — to work as a volunteer. “It is my service,” he explained, after reluctantly taking a very brief break from his syncopated tray sorting.
A white rag covered his head, and his hands were bound like a boxer’s. His job is to man the heavy bucket that receives the dirty plates and bowls. He is the last man on a highly organised line that begins with collecting the spoons, dumping out any leftover food, then loading giant tubs of dirty dishes bound for the washing troughs.
Plates and bowls fly at him, but he never misses a beat, using a metal plate in each hand to deflect the traffic into the tub. Plates go around the rim, while bowls get stacked in the middle.
Ashok Kumar used to be a bookbinder. “I feel happy here,” he said when asked why he had given up his old life.
Indians of all faiths come here to find a measure of peace largely unavailable in the cacophony of the nation’s 1.2 billion people. Like the thousands of pairs of shoes left at the temple gates, the chaos and filth of urban life are left behind at the marble entrances.
The temple is a world of cleanliness and order — where the wail of the harmonium and the shuffling of bare feet are the only sounds, and every square inch is scrubbed many times a day.
It has not always been a peaceful place. A Sikh insurgency, which sought a separate homeland for Sikhs in Punjab, tore at India’s heart in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1984, Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister, ordered a bloody raid on the temple. Hundreds of militants were hiding there, and many were killed. The temple was also damaged. Sikh bodyguards later assassinated Indira Gandhi to avenge the attack on the temple.
Despite this history, Sikhs remain resolutely a part of India’s mainstream, holding leading positions in the arts, government and business. India’s current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh.
Pankaj Ahuja, who owns a medical supply shop in Rajasthan, was visiting the temple for the third time, this time bringing his wife and son, who had never been before. They took the Golden Temple express train, and were sleeping in the pilgrims’ dormitories, which are also free. The family is Hindu, but the temple has a special significance for them nonetheless.
“You have lots of religious places in this country,” said Ahuja’s wife, Nikita. “But the kind of peace and cleanliness you find here you won’t find anywhere else.”
Back home, cleaning floors would be considered degrading for someone of her status — people of low caste usually do such work. But here, Nikita Ahuja happily scrubs floors. “In normal life, I would ask, ‘Why should I do this?’ It is shameful to clean floors,” she said. “But here, it is different.”
Indeed, she never gives a moment’s thought to who prepared the food in the kitchen, even though in India’s highly stratified caste traditions such matters are vital. “It is more than food,” she said of the meals that she had eaten at the community kitchen. “Once you eat it, you forget who is cooking, who is serving it, who is sitting next to you.”
Anil Kumar, a 32-year-old Hindu, was up to his elbows in soapy water at one of the washing troughs. “At home, I would never do this,” he said with a laugh. “It is my wife’s work.”
But he said he tried to come for at least an hour every day to wash dishes. “It is not a question of religion,” he added. “It is a question of faith. Here I get a feeling of peace.”
By Lydia Polgreen, The New York Times
- 137 days ago via site
Shocking Indian school poisoning: Principal 'forced kids to eat' odd-looking food.
After 23 Indian children died from consuming poisoned school meals, it has emerged that victims refused the food before being made to eat it, according to the Times of India. Preliminary investigations indicate the cooking medium was laced with pesticide.
Police say that the latest case of poisoning, which claimed the lives of 23 children, was most probably caused by storing cooking oil in a used pesticide container.
However, an anonymous HRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) source told the Times of India that the cooking agent used for soyabean subzi may have played a role.
“Earlier it was thought oil was put in a pesticide container. But it seems that the lady cook used pesticide,” the source said.
The subzi looked black and smelt odd according to the source. “The school principal insisted the cooking medium cannot be bad since it had come from her husband's shop,” he said. “When students refused to eat, the principal scolded and forced them to eat.”
"I can accept accidents can happen anywhere. But the scale of this incident and the carelessness, the sheer callousness of the response, the delay in treating the children, is shocking," activist Dipa Sinha of the Right to Food Campaign told AFP.
The children died after eating lentils, potatoes and rice cooked with oil containing agricultural insecticide that was five times the strength sold in the market place, according to tests.
Forensic tests have shown that the oil contained a "highly toxic" form of insecticide which killed the children so quickly that some died in their parents' arms while being taken to hospital.
The principal reportedly fled the school shortly after realizing the extent of the tragedy. “A crucial one and half to two hours were lost. Had these children been rushed to hospital immediately few lives could have been saved,” he said.
There have been violent protests in the state of Bihar. Several parents who lost children in the tragedy said they had trusted the school to serve their kids their only solid meal of the day.
"We have no food at home and it was only to ensure that my children got at least some food that I sent them to the school," a mother who lost three children in the tragedy, Sanjudevi Mahatoshe, told AFP.
Tens of thousands of children in India have been reportedly been refusing to eat their meals in the aftermath of the tragedy. On top of this, there have been a number of reports of children taken to hospital , and one report of a scorpion found in the rice in a midday meal.
A recent Reuters review of audit reports and research papers showed officials have ignored warnings of the lack of oversight and accountability in the program. Checks in several states have found unhygienic conditions in which the food is prepared and served, and the poor quality of food itself.
"You only come and do checks when you get complaints or when there are serious cases," Rudranarayan Ram, a local education administrator for the village of Gandaman in Bihar state, where the children died, said.
Two audit reports by the state governments of Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh said the food in the scheme was often laced with stones and worms.
"If the government checks, they will find that the children who have been eating midday meals are under great physical threat," Professor Ajay Kumar Jha at the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, who led a team to monitor the programme in Bihar in April said.
Another survey by the Indian Institute of Management revealed that children in Gujarat state were instructed to wash up after meals by "rubbing the playground soil on the plates and then giving them a quick rinse".
Last year over 130 students needed hospital treatment in the western Indian city of Pune after eating a school lunch, according to the Times of India. A probe later revealed that the food was contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
The nationwide free meal scheme feeds up to 120 million children every day. The tradition has long proved to be the only encouragement to parents, most of whom are struggling to make both ends meet, to send their children to school instead of condemning kids to malnutrition and illiteracy.
While the midday meal is often the only wholesome meal poor children in India may get during the day, a government survey revealed last year that 42 per cent of children under the age of five were underweight. India is home to a quarter of the world's hungry.
Tamil Nadu was the first Indian state to adopt a school feeding programme in 1982.
Other local governments gradually followed the example, and in 2001 India's Supreme Court ordered all states to provide free lunches to children in state-run primary schools.
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