Saturday, May 28, 2022

How Khivi,Wife of Sikh Guru Angad Dev, Helped Establish The Tradition of 'Langar'

Khivi stepped out of the limited boundaries of the domestic and used her culinary, and organizational and managerial skills to set up and run the langar, where meals were served with equal respect without distinction of caste, creed or colour.

How Khivi,Wife of Sikh Guru Angad Dev, Helped Establish The Tradition of 'Langar'
How Khivi, wife of Sikh Guru Angad Dev, helped establish the tradition of ‘Langar’ Shutterstock

Khivi, the wife of Sikh guru Angad Dev, institutionalized the tradition of langar: a space of astonishing generosity. Millions of people eat daily in langars at gurudwaras, delicious and nutritious meals, cooked and served by volunteers. Food is offered to anyone who comes by, with no differentiation on the basis of religion or race. Special langars are often set up by members of the Sikh community to feed destitute people, refugees, victims of earthquakes, floods or other disasters. Despite the flourishing world of langars, few people have heard of its progenitor, Khivi. 

In the early years of the Sikh religion, langar was popularly known as Mata Khivi Ji da langar. Guru Nanak and his wife Sulakhni had initiated food offering to devotees. Khivi expanded the system, and systemized seva (voluntary service). She showed the way, through the great care she took in preparing each meal. Langar flows from the awareness that food is divine, no one owns it, everyone needs it, and everyone’s need is equally important. 

Khivi was born in 1506 to Karan Devi and Devi Chand Khatri, a well-to-do couple of village Sarigar, near Khadur in present-day Amritsar district. At the age of 13, Khivi married Lahina, and moved to live with him at Khadur. Five years later, they had a son, Dasu, and then daughters Amro (1532) and Anokhi (1535), and son Datu (1537). Around 1530, Khivi heard of Guru Nanak’s teaching from an acquaintance, Mai Bhirai, and Lahina heard of the Guru through Bhai Jodha. 


Her Stories -- Indian Women Down The Ages
Her Stories -- Indian Women Down The Ages

Lahina went to Kartarpur to meet Guru Nanak in 1532, and became a disciple. He stayed on to serve the Guru — sweeping, washing clothes and working in the fields. His understanding of the teachings grew, and so did the Guru’s affection for him. After a while, Guru Nanak instructed Lahina to return to Khadur to his family, and spread word of the new faith. Guru Nanak visited the family twice. Khivi too embraced the faith wholeheartedly. Women of the village cautioned her that if her husband became a holy man, he would forsake her, but she knew better. Guru Nanak advocated family life, with equality and respect for women.

In 1539, Lahina succeeded Guru Nanak, becoming the second guru of the faith; he was now known as Guru Angad Dev. Disciples poured in from far and near. Khivi took it upon herself to look after them, presiding over the langar, attending to every detail. The best ingredients were used, and everyone was treated with courtesy. She created a loving atmosphere, which also helped establish the fledgling spiritual community on a strong footing. Her spirit of hospitality has been widely emulated over the centuries.

Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, explicitly mentions Khivi, noting that this noble woman provided comfort to pilgrims, like a tree with deep leafy shade; she distributed rich fare such as kheer, which tasted like ambrosia. Meals were served with equal respect without distinction of caste, creed or colour. Since Khadur was situated by the Beas River, many travellers ate at the langar, before or after crossing the river, and thus got naturally attracted to the new faith. Langar became a unique and integral part of Sikh culture. While Guru Angad spread Sikhism in congregations (Sangat), Khivi effectively did the same through the community kitchen.

Langars offer food free of charge; expenses are met out of donations by members of the community. Sikhism preaches that everyone should earn their livelihood through their own hard work. Guru Angad Dev earned his living by twisting coarse grass, called munj, into rope, used for making cots. And Khivi, stepping out of the limited boundaries of the domestic, used her culinary, organizational and managerial skills to set up and run the langar.

Khivi and Guru Angad led a life of rustic simplicity. They loved children — their own and others’. Daily they set aside time to teach children, watched them at play and delighted in their clever ways. From children’s games, the Guru would often draw out practical lessons for the congregation.

Khivi was a kind mother, with great confidence in her children. The elder daughter, Amro, married Jasoo, of Basarke village. Amro sang sweetly, and people would gather to hear her sing the Sikh shabads (hymns from the Guru Granth Sahab). Amar Das, a young relative of her husband’s, was very moved by her singing, and Amro persuaded him to go seek the blessings of Guru Angad. Amar Das did so, and became a devoted follower of Sikhism; Guru Angad selected him as his successor.

Guru Angad said to Khivi, ‘I know you approve of my selection of Amar Das, but what of your sons?’ She replied, ‘They are proud of being Guru’s sons. Be kind to them and show them the right path.’ When Guru Angad passed away in 1552, Datu declared himself the heir and gathered a small following. When Datu developed headaches, Khivi persuaded him that the sure way to a cure was to accept the rightful Guru. She explained: ‘Your father’s decision was based on merit. Your father too became Guru on the basis of merit; this is Sikh tradition.’ Datu agreed to go with her to Guru Amar Das, who, when he heard Mata Khivi was coming, ran out to meet them halfway. Thanks to Khivi’s timely intervention, Sikhism was spared a schism.

Khivi continued supervising the langar for Guru Amar Das. When Guru Amar Das organised the Sikhs into specific districts and jurisdictions called Manjis, he appointed Amro to head a Manji. Amro’s responsibilities included spreading the teachings, collecting revenue and caring for the welfare of the people. To date, a pond at Basarke is called Bibi Amro Da Talab. 

Khivi lived to the age of 75, some 30 years beyond her husband. She saw five Gurus during her lifetime; Guru Arjun Dev attended her funeral to pay his respects. Mata Khivi’s legacy is alive today in the langar served in every gurudwara in the world.

Excerpted from Her-Stories — Indian Women Down The Ages: Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, with permission from Rupa Publications  

Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a political scientist, with cross-disciplinary interests. She taught social science at Delhi University.