We arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, via London, at 1:30 in the morning after twenty-four hours of travel and a big dose of nervous excitement. The airport, much more modern than I had imagined, was unexpectedly crowded for such an early hour but apparently, early morning arrivals are common in this international terminal.
We followed the crowds in a jet-lagged daze through immigration (please let us in), baggage claim (please let our bags be there), currency exchange (please don’t rip us off), and finally the exit (driver, please, please be there). Thankfully, we spied a sign meant just for us, “Mr. Judy Wright.” Yes, someone, on the other side of the planet, was expecting us! I’m not sure there are words to describe our relief; we had no backup plan.
Our driver, Ravi, smiled when he saw us walk towards him. It was 3:00 in the morning. He took our bags, put them in the trunk of a small white car and drove us to our hotel. It took almost an hour to get there. Ravi asked us what time we wanted to get picked up. We told him 11:00. At the time, I don’t think we fully understood he would be our driver and caretaker for the entire time we explored the “Golden Triangle” cities of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra.
Why have a driver? Because in India, road lanes are merely suggestions. There are 10 million vehicles in Dehli. The streets are crowded with three-wheeled taxis called “autos,” motorcycles, cars, people, and the occasional street cow, all of them weaving in and out of traffic beeping their horns as they go. Ravi quickly informed us that, in India, a beeping horn means, “I’m here!” not, “I’m angry.” He joked that good drivers must have three things: good horns, good brakes, and good luck. Ravi had much to manage on the road in addition to answering multiple questions from yours truly. We were fortunate to be in the capable hands of such a smart and kind man.
(These videos of road traffic were all shot in Jaipur.)
Sometimes there were harnessed camels sharing the road
or joyful kids
or multiple children being driven to school on a motorcycle.
That first morning, we drove into downtown Dehli where Ravi pulled over at a busy corner, and like magic, in jumped our red-turbaned tour guide named Daljeet. They decided to take us to Daljeet’s place of worship, a Sikh temple known as Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib built in 1783. It is one of ten Sikh gurudwaras in India. It was not on our original itinerary, but it became one of the most memorable, serendipitous stops of our trip for reasons to be explained.
Daljeet gave us a brief history of the Sikh people and explained the tradition of sewa — voluntary, selfless service on behalf of and for the betterment of the greater community. He said it is their religious mission to respect all humans and to take care of people.
Sikhs do not have a caste system, nor do they discriminate against people of other religions, ethnicities, or gender. Everyone is considered equal; thus, poor people pray and eat beside the more privileged in the gurudwara.
Sikh men wear turbans to hold up the hair they never cut from birth to death. They do not shave their beards, either. Their turban is a symbol of bravery, self-respect, and spirituality. The women cover their heads, as well.
To enter the temple, we had to remove our shoes, place a covering over our head (orange kerchiefs were available for visitors),
wash our hands with soap and water, and rinse our feet in a stream of running water.
Once inside the temple, we knelt down and prayed at the railing of the lavish temple made of marble and covered in gold.
We became intoxicated by the symphony of music and praying.
After visiting the temple, we went out the back entrance to the 20-foot deep holy lake. Historically, people bathed in this lake; more purification. Daljeet invited us to dip our feet in the holy water.
Our second stop was to accept a small portion of Prasad, a sacred pudding served while scripture is recited. It is a devotional offering to God.
The sweet pudding is made with equal portions of whole wheat flour, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar.
Here is how one accepts prasad.
“Yes, I would like to see the kitchen.”
Here is a photo of Daljeet. He is calling Ravi to tell him the Americans want to stay longer and tour the interior of the langar, the community kitchen and feeding hall of the gurudwara. He had just finished telling us how the Sikhs feed thousands every day and I wanted to see how they did it. I told him of my passion for feeding people at The Nashville Food Project where we grow, cook and share nutritious food, too.
The Sikhs feed the masses — 35,000 meals are made and served Monday thru Saturday in the langar. On Sundays, 65,000 meals are served. Lunch consists of rice, dahl (black lentils), vegetables, chapati (bread), kheer (a sweet dessert made with rice, milk, sugar, and almonds) and tea. Daljeet fixed me a sample of the food and served it on dried leaves. Delicious.
The Food Hall
For 500 years Sikhs have been feeding people in this hall that is now air-conditioned. As people exit from one end, volunteers come in and sweep and mop the floors, followed closely by a new group of dinner guests entering from the other end of the building.
The room fills quickly. Stainless steel trays are passed by volunteers. There are no utensils; the diners eat with their hands.
Next, volunteers walk up and down the aisles serving hot food from large stainless steel pails and chapati from bowls.
After dinner, guests drop off their trays as they exit.
Inside the kitchen, the steel plates are washed creating a cacophony of sound. Daljeet said when he has free time, he comes in and washes dishes.
Our next stop was to tour the kitchen. At the entrance, a group of people sat and prepped daikon radishes, the vegetable of choice that day. I recognized this long white root vegetable as a plant used by American farmers to break up soil in a sustainable way. It is not a plant Americans typically eat. It is currently in season in India. We saw it being transported, along with green onions and cilantro in every town we visited.
I asked if I could help prep the radishes. The women offered me a stool and handed me a knife.
I got to help roll the chapati dough, too.
Here are people cooking the chapati. Each chapati is brushed with a little ghee after cooking.
The cooking area was a beehive of activity.
Most of the people in the kitchen are volunteers. Daljeet told us the congregation employs the chefs only. The temple supports each chef’s family, including educating the children.
A few more pictures:
This team is in charge of refilling the serving bowls of chapati.
These men are refilling the pails of dahl and rice for the servers on the other side of the window. It is a well-oiled machine of food service.
Look at the size of the kettle. It looks very similar to some we saw at the Amer Fort, built in 1592, near Jaipur.
This is the rice and milk dessert.
The dry storage room. Much of the wheat and rice stored here are grown by Sikhs in the Punjab. Grow. Cook. Share.
This video shows the beehive of activity in the kitchen.
We spent almost three delightful hours at the Gurudwara. Of the 18 million people who live in Delhi, I am grateful that Ravi and Daljeet were assigned to be our guides and that I had this remarkable opportunity to see how another organization uses food to provide nourishment and form a sense of harmony and community in a city.
We had been in India for only twelve hours, and already we had driven through a city where people beep to say “I’m here” instead of “I’m angry,” to get to a place where food is used as a way to say, “Welcome, I care about you.” We experienced this pattern of kindness and generosity of spirit throughout our ten-day stay in India.
Namaste. (“I respect you from my heart and soul” as Ravi put it.)
Places we Visited in Dehli
Learning How to Block Print in a Factory in Jaipur (India, Part 2)
A Stepwell, Parcheesi, Brick-Making, and Chapati-Making (India, Part 3)
Room with a View: the Taj Mahal in Agra (India, Part 4)
A Cook’s Tour of a Farm in Southern India (India, Part 5)
Shopping for a Saree in South India (India, Part 6)
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