It seems so very strange the way our food systems have mutated over just the last few generations. From being something that was so central to our lives, our environment, our cultures and our individual identities, food has, like so much else in the world just become another commodity. Although almost all trace of our once rich food heritage has disappeared with the growth of homogenized global mega cities, it is still not difficult, if you look, to see systems that still maintain the essence of what our food systems once looked like and should look like. Once again I found myself at the beautiful Golden Temple in Amritsar and once again found myself shooting food at the temple. But this time it wasn’t Langar and the huge food halls that feed thousands of people every day for free, this time it was something a little more specific, Karhah Prasad.
I was not so interested in the process of this rather strange food made from just wheat flour, sugar, ghee (clarified butter) and water but more in the philosophy and reasoning behind this offering, the symbolism that is so very much part of Sikh religion and culture.
As always, the Sikh community and the officials at the temple were amazingly accommodating, taking us in and doing everything they could to make our life as easy as possible. The first night we spent in the kitchen as they began to prepare the first batch of Prasad. (it is only Karhah Prasad once it has been divided by the sword)
Massive steal vats, spotlessly clean sit on huge burner that raw like jet engines, the smell of burning ghee and a haze of flour dust fills the room as men open family size tins of flour, ghee and sugar. One by one the ingredients are mixed, then once the temperature is right, the water is added, sending plumes of scented steam into the air. This is the simple yet apparently complex (it’s all in the timing) method of making the most sacred foods of Sikh religion and culture.
The philosophy behind it comes from Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism in the late 15th century and embodied the basic principles of Sikhism… equality.
By using equal amounts of each ingredient, then blessing it and sharing it equally, this simple offering represented to people the message of equality of both men and women, a message the world seems to have forgotten, not just in the east but in the west too. The three ingredients were at one time sourced from local families who farmed the Gurdwara’s surrounding lands. They would donate them as part of their Dasvand, which literally means, one tenth. Whether financial, agricultural or as service to others, all Sikhs believe that one tenth of everything we have to give should be shared with those less fortunate than us. But all this has now changed and as with so much in our physical and psychological systems, it has become more about business than charity and with the feeding of so many pilgrims every day, it is only the large factories that are able to keep up with the huge demand. The romantic vision of local farmer supplying the best quality organic ghee, flour and sugar have now all but disappeared as Punjab continues to develop more and more along the lines of western cultures and economic paradoxes. In the flatness of the Punjabi agricultural landscapes and the middle of the madness that is Amritsar stands one of the most beautiful buildings in India and in it, preserved for generations are philosophies and teaching that should remind us of where we have come from and where we need to go. But with the constant and growing noise from the traffic horns and radio’s surrounding the temple, I feel the message is becoming increasingly less audible.
With thanks to:
Garry Morris for the music at hoorayface.bandcamp.com
Simran Sethi who I worked with on this project simransethi.com
and Alok Gupta for working so hard in organising and translating everything.