By Lesley-Anne, 67. Christie Downs, SA
It was our first day in Delhi. Visiting India had always been on my bucket list, and I was excited to leave the comfort of our hotel and get out into the streets and see the real India.
We spent the first part of the morning wandering around the ruins of a vast Moghul Fort. The Moghul Empire began in Northern India in 1526 when the Moghul troops swept down India’s northern plains. These ancestors of Genghis Khan came from central Asia, from what today is Uzbekistan. They brought great wealth to India with the development of both trade and industry and ruled for more than two centuries. Their legacy lives on in the architecture which combined Persian and Indian styles to give us world-renowned structures such as the Taj Mahal.
Next we saw the final home of Mahatma Gandhi. A light-filled house, which is now a museum and monument to this great man. You can follow his footsteps along the pathway, where on the 30th of January 1948 at 5.00 p.m., he made his way to a prayer meeting. As he stepped up onto the dais, he was shot at point-blank range. Gandhi dreamed of an India where the poorest had an effective voice, an India with no high class and low class. Where all communities lived in harmony. Where untouchability was a curse and where women should enjoy the same rights as men, he wanted an India that was at peace with the rest of the world. Here was a man ahead of his time. Such a loss for India and, in my opinion, the rest of the world.
I had enjoyed every moment of the day so far, but the best was yet to come. A visit to Old Delhi and a rickshaw ride through the tiny thronged streets. The colours, the smells, and the sights of life being lived in these bustling streets was everything I had imagined when I thought of India. There were textiles and saris in jewel-like colours. Food carts were laden with samosas, pakoras and pappadums, more were cooking in large bubbling drums of oil. Fresh fruits and vegetables, bright reds, greens and purples displayed in baskets, buckets and boxes. All manner of haberdashery dripping from racks in gold, red and yellow, sparkling and vivid in the bright sun. Between all this colour were tobacconists, banks, and barbers, all busy with customers going about their lives. Some of these activities of daily living made for great photo opportunities. I’m sure the man I snapped as the barber wielded the cutthroat razor over his lathered chin never expected to be immortalized during his daily shave.
The next stop still in this old part of Dehli was the Golden Temple. This historic Sikh house of worship is identifiable by its golden dome and its signature tall flagpole. The highlight of my day was now only a few minutes away.
A community-operated kitchen, or langar as it is called locally, is housed within the temple. It runs 24/7, 365 days a year and feeds over 35,000 people every day. Everyone is welcome, no matter their faith or walk of life. There are locals, the homeless, and tourists sitting down together in a dining hall that can accommodate between 800 and 900 people. As it can take some time to be served in the main hall, there is also a smaller room reserved for people who might need a quick meal before they head out to catch a flight or keep an appointment. As we were on a time limit, this was the room we entered. There were two small wooden stools already occupied by local people; others were sitting on the floor in that cross-legged way that is just about impossible for Westerners, particularly those of us of a certain age. The two on the stools immediately jumped up and indicated for us to sit down with welcoming smiles. This kind gesture was much appreciated, especially by my ageing limbs.
We were handed a sectioned steel plate, known as thalli, and eagerly waited for a server to dole out our fresh-off-the-stove vegetarian lunch. Within a few minutes, we were served hot, soft chapattis, brushed with clarified butter, a generous ladle of steaming daal (lentils) and a mixed vegetable curry. It was wonderfully aromatic with the pungent spices you associate with good Indian food. This simple, sustaining meal was a real treat for the taste buds and equal to many Indian meals I have enjoyed in restaurants. Servings are unlimited with the condition that not a single bite of food should be wasted. Over the clunk of spoons against the metal plates, we could hear a steady strain of devotional music floating in from the main shrine next door.
The food is cooked in a massive kitchen area with huge cooking pots lined up on a tiled platform with gas jets underneath them. Everything runs so efficiently that the kitchen seems calm and almost serene, considering the sheer volume of food being prepared. Each day 800 kilograms of vegetable curry and daal with chapattis made out of 1,700kg of wheat flour and 400kg of rice, are cooked and served. The kitchen starts serving food at 5 a.m. every day and continues until late into the night. However, if someone comes for food outside of these hours, it is opened up, and they are served. No one is ever turned away, and no one leaves the langar hungry.
Thousands wait patiently each day, sometimes for hours, to eat at the Golden Temple. The simple, wholesome food is served every day with care and love. For me, it was a truly memorable meal, I will never forget the taste, the surroundings and the lesson in humanity that it represents.