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Roti Meditations and Free Food Are a Fixture at This Sikh Temple

“There’s something about roti made in community,” Nitasha Sawhney says, dipping her roti in a creamy palak paneer. “It tastes better than anything you can get at a restaurant.”

We’re sitting for breakfast at a Khalsa Care Foundation, a Sikh gurdwara in Pacoima. Sikhism is a pantheistic religion that originates from the northern parts of India. As the fifth-largest religion in the world, it is also one of the youngest.

The term gurdwara refers to a Sikh place of worship and this one is open every day of the week. On a Sunday morning, everyone is on the floor eating, sitting cross-legged on carpeting.

“The idea is that everyone sits on equal grounds and eats together,” Sawhney says. 

Nitasha Sawhney participating in langar.
Nitasha Sawhney participating in langar. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

This is called langar, a communal meal shared by members and visitors of the gurdwara. For Sikhs, it’s become an irrevocable part of their religion. Adopted by the first Sikh Guru in 15th century India, the langar was designed to uphold the principle of equality among all people regardless of class. It was an especially avant-garde concept for the times, where caste divisions were a source of great unrest.

The langar has been a part of the Sikh religion since and here in California, which has the largest Sikh population in the United States, it is still going strong. The meals are sponsored by members of the congregation and a group of volunteers do all the cooking. Everything is vegetarian and the meal is blessed with prayers.

Prep starts as earlier as 6 a.m. and on Sundays and Friday evenings, a dozen people will congregate in the kitchen for what Sawhney calls a roti meditation. A multi-generational assembly line forms with everyone chanting the phrase “waheguru” in unison.

Roti prep starts as earlier as 6 a.m.
Prep starts as earlier as 6 a.m. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

“It is our name for God, the great person, our teacher,” Simrat Kaur explains.

The chanting is a way to get rid of unnecessary gossip and distractions, and to help people focus in on why they are there: to commune with God and to meditate on his teachings. From dough to grill, the roti is molded, shaped, grilled, and then brushed with butter. On Sundays, roughly 1,000 rotis are churned out for a congregation of about 200.

The food is doled out buffet-style and when lunch rolls around and the crowd grows, volunteers will walk around the dining area and serve people food. The meal is simple: a dollop of yogurt, perhaps, with a spoon of lentils and chickpeas. A piece or two of roti is a must, plus a warm cup of chai.

From dough to grill, the roti is molded, shaped, grilled, and then brushed with butter.
From dough to grill, the roti is molded, shaped, grilled, and then brushed with butter. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

The Khalsa Care Foundation also operates a food pantry, where they distribute food to low-income families within the community.

The langar serves as an act of service, one of the fundamental pillars of the religion.

“We serve before we partake in our food,” Kaur says. “This is one of the three big tenants of our religious belief.” 

Sikhs do not preach conversion; they believe that there are many paths to God. Yet, it’s a religion in which public outreach is central.

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During lunch, I ask Sawhney, a lawyer who has focused her energy on civil rights on behalf of Sikh Americans since 9/11, how the community is faring in the Trump world. Sikhs have faced discrimination especially for their distinct articles of faith like turbans and head scarves. Surveys have shown that 60 percent of Americans know next to nothing about Sikhism. Though 99 percent of Americans who wear turbans are Sikh, more Americans think the turban signifies a Muslim.

“We’ve been through tougher times,” Sawhney says, noting that the community is stronger than ever. “9/11 opened up our eyes that we need to get out there. People don’t know that we’ve been here in America for 100 years.”

Sikhs started immigrating to the United States from India in the 1900s, working as farmers and laborers. The first gurdwara was set up in California in 1906.

“We’ve just worked hard to maintain these very visual elements of faith,” she says. “In Southern California, we’re making efforts to educate people on who we are.” 

Part of that education means serving langar to complete strangers in the greater Los Angeles area.

Part of that education means serving langar to complete strangers in the greater Los Angeles area.
Part of that education means serving langar to complete strangers in the greater Los Angeles area. | Photo: Courtesy of Clarissa Wei

“Every religion wants to serve their community. The concept is there in every religion but we need to implement it,” Sarbjit Singh, one of the members of the Khalsa Care Foundation, says.

When Singh heard there was going to be a Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles, he immediately got to work. He managed to secure a booth and organized a langar on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Members of the temple gathered together and served over 7,000 protesters, holding up signs like “Sikhs 4 Women’s Rights” and “Love Trumps Hate.”

Langar is simply a way, as Singh puts it, to spread the love.

“Every religion wants to serve their community,” he says. “You’re giving yourself, sharing yourself. Love is the most powerful thing that we have and whoever has love can reach God.”  

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