Sikh kitchens feed New Delhi's masses in virus lockdown

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Sikh volunteers chop vegetables outside their kitchen hall at the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara in New Delhi, India, Sunday, May 10, 2020. The Bangla Sahib Gurudwara has remained open through wars and plagues, serving thousands of people simple vegetarian food. During India's ongoing coronavirus lockdown about four dozen men have kept the temple's kitchen open, cooking up to 100,000 meals a day that the New Delhi government distributes at shelters and drop-off points throughout the city. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI – At first, the kitchen at the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara cooked 40,000 meals each day for the hungry who live on the streets of India’s capital city, or who have lost their livelihoods to the coronavirus lockdown.

But the need was greater than that. So workers at the golden-domed temple in central New Delhi made 80,000 meals daily. Then 100,000. Soon, they expect to be making 300,000 -- all provided free to the growing ranks of the unfortunate.

For centuries the faithful have flocked to the temple for its healing waters and a free meal at the community kitchen, the symbol of equality found at every Sikh temple complex and open to all visitors.

The Bangla Sahib Gurdwara has remained open through wars and plagues, serving millions of people simple vegetarian food on the cool marble floor of its enormous dining hall. But during India’s ongoing lockdown -- among the world’s most stringent -- religious congregations are banned.

Bangla Sahib has kept its kitchen open, with the help of about four dozen men who sleep at the temple’s guesthouse. To save time commuting to and from the temple and avoid the risk of infecting loved ones, they haven’t seen their families since the lockdown began March 25.

In colorful turbans and cloth bandanas tied over their noses and mouths, they work in the industrial kitchen in 18-hours shifts.

Head cook Balbir Singh stirs an enormous ladle through a potato and soybean stew, simmering with ghee and coriander in a giant cook pot. A machine that every hour makes 5,000 chapati -- thin, unleavened bread -- whirs long before the sun rises and after it sets.

Singh, 44, lights the flames at 3 a.m. so that 35,000 lunches are ready for pickup by 9 a.m.