Gurudwara Bangla Sahib holds a special spot in my heart. It is a nexus for many of the things that makes India unique and dear to me personally. I am writing about the Gurudwara to give some taste of India and a small, small taste of some of the wonders to experience in this rich, vibrant country.
First, a little context.
A Gurdwara is a Sikh house of worship. Sikhism began in India as a set of moral principles to help guide people how to live a virtuous life. Historically Sikhism has not had clergy and focuses on how people live virtuously more than to describe how to obtain a religious reward. Sikh means ‘to learn’ and some of the tenants of Sikhism include the belief that we can learn from all religions (everyone is welcome to worship at a Sikh temple), social equality (working against the historical caste system in India) and charitable works (more on this below).
Sikh men can be recognized by their turban, uncut hair and a metal bracelet called a Kara. Sikh women often have long hair too and wear long scarves called channis. Sometimes as Americans we can get self-conscious asking about turbans and uncommon outfits. I won’t digress into the origins of dress and practices, but I strongly encourage you to approach a Sikh when you meet one and ask! Chances are high it will lead to more understanding and even a new friend.
On to the Gurudwara
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is in central Delhi and is easy to find (just ask someone). It is a large compound and when you visit you are asked to be barefoot and cover your head. There are halls on the periphery for foreigners to leave their shoes and borrow a head scarf.
Entering the grounds is vibrant with smells, impressions and people everywhere. Traffic gets backed up blocks away and at times it can feel like you are in the midst of a great throng of humanity.
When you first walk into the central hall you hear people singing texts. These are volunteers and not traditionally clergy. The readings are not from religious scriptures but are describing moral values to follow in everyday life. The volunteers rotate every 3 hours and begin reading from where they choose in the text. You are welcome to sit, listen and observe as long as you like.
The Kitchen in the Gurudwara
One of the remarkable things about the Gurudwara (and why we hope you visit) it the kitchen/meal service. The Sikh’s have a strong practice of charitable works and social equality. The Gurdwara offers free meals to everyone, ultimately serving tens of thousands of people a day. The food is donated and the workers are volunteers. The operation is immense and it works! Just taking in the scale and complexity of the kitchen/serving teams makes an impression!
It is a common misconception to think of the meal service as a soup kitchen. Helping the poor. That isn’t the purpose (although everyone is welcome). The objective is to work towards social equality. All walks of life come together, work together, eat together and find the common threads that are shared in our different experiences. The objective is to bring people together. A value we can easily get behind!
As we travel we seek experiences that are hands on, real (not staged tourist ‘experiences’) and get us together with local people. Whenever we are in Delhi we head to the Gurudwara to help out. It is consistently one of our most rewarding practices when in Delhi. Working in the kitchen, serving meals and connecting with people over making bread and eating bread is food on a lot of levels.
We hope you give it a try. In the back of the building is the entrance to the kitchen (Ask someone and they will point the way). Head in, roll up your sleeves and join in at a station. Remember, everyone is a volunteer. If you don’t know what to do, don’t panic. A friendly person will lean over and help get you sorted out in short order.