Photo © Emily Polar

The Golden Temple

How a single kitchen feeds up to 150,000 people daily.

Emily Polar's Profile Image

By Emily Polar

Travel Photographer

20 Jul 2018 - 6 Minute Read

2862
9
The Golden Temple is literally a 24-karat-gold-plated temple in Amritsar, Punjab, India, about 10 hours north of Delhi. It’s one of the most revered spiritual sites of Sikhism, but it’s not only Sikhs who make the pilgrimage here. The temple receives and feeds 50,000 to 100,000 people daily from all religions and walks of life, and during big festivals such as Diwali, the numbers can rise to 150,000 per day.

After learning about the openness of this religion, and the number of people they feed, I was brimming with curiosity. I mean, the kitchen?! What did it look like?
The common area in the north end of the temple complex where pilgrims rest and sleep on the floor. This entire room was full during the week of Diwali (festival of lights).
Emily Polar
The common area in the north end of the temple complex where pilgrims rest and sleep on the floor. This entire room was full during the week of Diwali (festival of lights).
Arriving in Amritsar by bus, I was thrown into what felt like pure chaos, the low evening light adding to the disorienting sea of busy streets. I made my way through the snarl of traffic, vendors, and rickshaws to the Golden Temple and my accommodation.

The dorms for volunteers felt like a place for detaining the unruly; one big, windowless room and three smaller rooms filled, wall-to-wall, with beds. At this point, I had been traveling in India for about four months, so I was well adjusted to the “rustic.” Hey stranger, care to sleep in the same bed?

After tossing my things in a locker, I grabbed my camera and set out for the Temple. Also known as Harmandir Sahib (or "Abode of God"), it's breathtaking in the evening, gleaming golden against the dark lake surrounding it. There are four entrances, one on each side of the Temple – not to confuse, but to emphasize that it is open to all – and one bridge leading to the Temple that, I later learned, symbolizes what Sikhs believe to be the ultimate goal of human life – to become one with the Divine.
Sikh men dip their hands to drink the holy water said to hold blessings that purify karma.
Emily Polar
Sikh men dip their hands to drink the holy water said to hold blessings that purify karma.
This Sikh man is well known and appears in many photos, and you can see why. In addition to his uncut beard and huge turban that houses his hair, he is carrying the symbolic items of a Sikh: Kangha (wooden comb for hair), Kara ( an iron bracelet), Kachera (cotton undergarment), and finally a Kirpan, a sword or dagger large enough to defend oneself.
Emily Polar
This Sikh man is well known and appears in many photos, and you can see why. In addition to his uncut beard and huge turban that houses his hair, he is carrying the symbolic items of a Sikh: Kangha (wooden comb for hair), Kara ( an iron bracelet), Kachera (cotton undergarment), and finally a Kirpan, a sword or dagger large enough to defend oneself.
The next morning, my first thought upon waking was breakfast, followed by the excitement of knowing I’d get to see the kitchen and the orchestrated dance that it performs 24 hours a day.

I grabbed a plate and followed everyone else to the langar (huge hall) where everyone sits on the ground. Volunteers brought out the food; buckets of lentils, rice, veg, and roti (flatbread).
Men and women sitting down in the langar waiting to be served a vegetarian lunch by volunteers.
Emily Polar
Men and women sitting down in the langar waiting to be served a vegetarian lunch by volunteers.
After we finished our meal, men came with water and brooms, cleaning the floors to prepare for the next batch of people. Each meal takes around 20 minutes, including serving and cleaning up, which allows for three turns per hour. Pretty good!

I followed the other pilgrims down the stairs to the dish drop-off – workers brushed off any extra food and put the plates into big metal buckets.
A boy cleans the floor of the langar between a quick turnover of meals.
Emily Polar
A boy cleans the floor of the langar between a quick turnover of meals.
After the communal meal, lines of people carry their metal plates downstairs to be handed off to the dishwashers.
Emily Polar
After the communal meal, lines of people carry their metal plates downstairs to be handed off to the dishwashers.
With my hands free and belly full, I explored the cooking stations. My favorites were the roti stations, where long tubes of dough were rolled, patted, and cooked. There were multiple stations, as well as machines that cranked out more than the humans could, but at one piece per guest, it adds up to a lot of roti. During this Diwali festival, they had all stations producing.
This man's job is cooking the roti in an already toasty room made even warmer by this huge cooking surface. Doesn't he look cool doing it, though?
Emily Polar
This man's job is cooking the roti in an already toasty room made even warmer by this huge cooking surface. Doesn't he look cool doing it, though?
The biggest pot of chai (milk tea) that you've ever seen needs lots stirring to keep the bottom from burning.
Emily Polar
The biggest pot of chai (milk tea) that you've ever seen needs lots stirring to keep the bottom from burning.
When I wasn’t helping with roti, or eating my fair share of delicious veg and chai, I roamed the grounds and the city. I made lots of friends in passing, taking photos of each other. I started a photo series called “One Snap” as that’s what most would ask – “One snap, ma’am?” – when they wanted to take a photo of me or them with me.

Whenever I returned to the temple, after a jaunt to the busy streets outside of the complex, I’d feel like I was back at home, with a routine and a familiar space.
The auspicious lighting of thousands of candles for the Diwali festival, dispelling the evil of darkness with the goodness of light.
Emily Polar
The auspicious lighting of thousands of candles for the Diwali festival, dispelling the evil of darkness with the goodness of light.
Fireworks are lit in celebration of Diwali.
Emily Polar
Fireworks are lit in celebration of Diwali.

I went to the Golden Temple because I was curious. I wanted to experience it for myself and, as a photographer, document what I saw.

Welcoming experiences that feel uncomfortable has made me more open to future experiences. Travel has helped me dislodge concepts I’m attached to, and shifted my comfort level. India is a great place for that. It can be trying, but I think it’s fuel for building perspective – and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that perspective is everything. A welcoming attitude doesn’t hurt either.

Discover similar stories in

Discovery
5 Likes
Shared
9 Comments
,
Travel Photographer

Emily is drawn to capture images that reveal a sense of wonder and connection – photography that spurs a playful investigation into the lives of people and the land we inhabit.

Related articles

9 Comments

  • kim bramley said

    I truly love the colour n truth u portray to us all thank u

  • Pritam Tara said

    Beautiful capturing of this sacred place. Sat Nam.

  • Wendy Dreyer said

    How wonderful!
    Thank you.
    A few months ago, I was in Amritsar for one night but completely overslept and missed the temple service as I had to fly out!
    I was super disappointed that I never saw the temple.
    Your photos are incredible and capture so much life and action.
    Man, India 🇮🇳 Has forever changed me.

  • rick be said

    I got sick in Nepal & went there to recuperate.I slept for two days and then rather than wait in the long food line for men.I ate at the street vendors,samosas for 1 rupee & cup of ice cream for the same.

  • Terry said

    What I was hoping to learn after reading the title was, how does this work? Is all of the food and labor donated? How can any temple afford to feed 50,000 or more people every day?

  • Christopher Couch said

    What a treat to read your narrative. To appreciate your experience and discoveries. To know such a place exists that feeds so many. The people there live faith.

    Thank you!

  • Pazzo Berger said

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for this post. This is a wonderful compilation of a probably very inspiring place...provided you have the stomach for India. I spend a lot of time in India for work (there 3x a month on average) and it's very sad to see how India, a culturally and spiritually very rich nation with probably one of the most awesome cuisines in the world becomes a big filthy junkyard. Wanna see what the future holds for human kind in terms of overpopulating and exhausting this planet? Go to India and you'll have the best One Snap...

  • Stephen Russell said

    Dont the Sikhs do this in the West, USA for thier flock.
    Food looks good BUT so crowded.
    Still wary of India overall, like to sample floating palace used in 007 movie Octopussy.

  • Ropable said

    @terry all food is donated and most of the prep and cooking is done by volunteers supported by a small complement of employees. The employees in turn are paid from monies raised via donations so you can say the whole operation is donation/volunteer based.

Add a Comment