Gar­den of de­vo­tion

A Sikh tem­ple’s food gar­den pow­ered by vol­un­teers, of­fend­ers, stu­dents, ed­u­ca­tors and yes, faith.


A Sikh tem­ple work­ing with of­fend­ers and stu­dents to feed thou­sands.

I“We wel­come ev­ery­one and we don’t ask where you come from or what you do… all peo­ple, from all points of the com­pass, are wel­come here.”

was not pre­pared for the odd feel­ing of home­com­ing I felt when I drove through the gates of the Sikh tem­ple grounds in the south Auck­land sub­urb of Takanini, roughly 30km from the city cen­tre. I am not of the Sikh faith, and was not quite sure what to ex­pect when I went to see their com­mu­nity gar­den.

We had heard vague re­ports of vol­un­teers plant­ing acres of veg­eta­bles and fruits to feed thou­sands, and projects to share knowl­edge about food pro­duc­tion and sus­tain­abil­ity. There was talk of work­ing with of­fend­ers and ed­u­ca­tors, and help­ing the needy. It all sounded ide­al­is­tic, yet com­pli­cated, so I had to see it for my­self.

It turns out that the Sikh Tem­ple Gu­rud­wara Sri Kal­gid­har Sahib Takanini & Otahuhu does all that and more.

They do feed thou­sands of peo­ple (specif­i­cally, an av­er­age of 300 on week­days, 1000 on Satur­days and 2000 on Sun­days). No, you don’t have to be Sikh. You don’t have to pray at the tem­ple. You don’t even have to pay for the food.

“We wel­come ev­ery­one and we don’t ask where you come from or what you do,” says Supreme Sikh So­ci­ety of New Zealand spokesper­son Daljit Singh. He ex­plains that all Sikh tem­ples have four doors – one on each side of the build­ing – as a sym­bol that “all peo­ple, from all points of the com­pass, are wel­come here. If they need help, they can come here.”

The lan­gar (free food kitchen) is cen­tral to ev­ery Sikh tem­ple around the world, and the sim­ple veg­e­tar­ian fare they serve (usu­ally dhal, veges, lentils and pulses) at the com­mu­nal meals re­in­forces their phi­los­o­phy of wel­com­ing all – re­gard­less of the di­etary re­stric­tions im­posed by some re­li­gions or any bar­ri­ers of caste, gen­der and eco­nomic sta­tus. This is why meals are served on the floor and eaten to­gether – ev­ery­one is equal and will be treated as such.

Much of the in­gre­di­ents used in the lan­gar are har­vested from the north-fac­ing veg­etable gar­den. “These in­clude broc­coli, cau­li­flower, egg­plant, chill­ies, sil­ver­beet, spinach, onions, pota­toes and car­rots,” says lan­gar head chef Sher Singh, who works full-time at the tem­ple and over­sees the kitchen vol­un­teers; to­gether, they cook and serve three square meals a day, and clean up af­ter.

Daily, 40 women start cook­ing in the in­dus­trial kitchen within the tem­ple from 4am. They pre­pare cha­p­ati and roti, while 20 men are on hand to pre­pare the veg­eta­bles and dhal. Why the gen­der di­vide, I ask. “Be­cause the women are not strong enough to lift the pots,” Daljit replies, point­ing to the well-used, 200-litre com­mer­cial pots filled to the brim and bub­bling with de­li­cious-smelling spiced veges and stews.

There are times, of course, when the gar­den can­not pro­duce enough to meet de­mand. Dur­ing last year’s Di­wali cel­e­bra­tions, the lan­gar served 25,000 peo­ple, go­ing through 700kg of flour for cha­p­ati, 600kg of rice and 8000 veg­e­tar­ian burg­ers.

“I take my grand­chil­dren to school, then I come here to work. I do this ev­ery day. If it rains, I work in the tem­ple. If there’s no rain, I work in the gar­den.”

“The orig­i­nal ob­jec­tive for the gar­den was to feed the tem­ple kitchen, and then have the sur­plus dis­trib­uted to food banks.”

In time, the planned-for 500 fruit and nut trees around the 11-acre prop­erty will also play their part. A to­tal of 360 trees – lemon, lime and var­i­ous other cit­rus, fei­joa, plum and ap­ple as well as nuts of all types – have been planted in the last year or so; the rest will go in soon.

Wa­ter comes from a bore, in­stalled to give the tem­ple the abil­ity to house and feed thou­sands of peo­ple in case of civil emer­gen­cies. So­lar panels on the tem­ple roof are also part of their sus­tain­abil­ity plan.

And yes, the gar­den is in­deed planted and har­vested by vol­un­teers who pray at the tem­ple. Ed­u­ca­tors and stu­dents from the nearby Manukau In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy do some of their course work here. Of­fend­ers sent by the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions also play a cru­cial role.

Cor­rec­tions has a long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with the Auck­land Teach­ing Gar­dens Trust (ATGT), which sends men­tors to work with Com­mu­nity Work teams (con­sist­ing of seven of­fend­ers) at the tem­ple and var­i­ous other gar­dens. These are of­fend­ers who are man­aged by Cor­rec­tions within the com­mu­nity; they have been as­sessed to be safe to work in the com­mu­nity, and are su­per­vised con­stantly while at work, with reg­u­lar site checks too.

ATGT’s Graeme Hansen had men­tored the tem­ple vol­un­teers be­fore ap­proach­ing Cor­rec­tions about ex­tend­ing their Com­mu­nity Work pro­grammes to that site.

“Their orig­i­nal ob­jec­tive for the gar­den was to feed the tem­ple kitchen, and then have the sur­plus dis­trib­uted to nom­i­nated food banks,” he says. “Many of the Sikh vol­un­teers come from farm­ing back­grounds any­way and I pro­vided more of a re­fresher re­ally. In the cli­mate they came from, there wasn’t much you could grow over win­ter, but in Auck­land, there’s still a lot you can do and it was a mat­ter of learn­ing all the sea­sonal vari­a­tions.”

Graeme also helped the tem­ple vol­un­teers de­velop a sound kitchen and food waste man­age­ment sys­tem.

Then in De­cem­ber 2017, he started work­ing with Cor­rec­tions’ teams at the tem­ple gar­den too. The teams help clear the grounds and pre­pare soil for plant­ing as well as plant, weed and prune. They also learn more about gar­den­ing, re­cy­cling, com­post­ing and grow­ing their own

Planted and tended by vol­un­teers, veg­eta­bles from the gar­den feed thou­sands of peo­ple ev­ery week.

“We learn not only about gar­den­ing but also how peo­ple ac­cept each other for who they are, de­spite cul­tural dif­fer­ences.”

food as part of a nu­tri­tious and af­ford­able diet. To date, more than 2240 hours have been com­pleted and con­tributed to the Sikh tem­ple gar­den, ac­cord­ing to Cor­rec­tions.

Their time here helps them to “de­velop a work ethic and also ac­quire a range of soft skills such as com­mu­ni­ca­tion, team­work and self-con­fi­dence,” says Manukau Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tions district man­ager Paul Rud­kin. “These skills can help them gain em­ploy­ment, so they can take care of them­selves and their fam­i­lies. Be­ing in sus­tain­able em­ploy­ment con­trib­utes to re­duc­ing re-of­fend­ing, keep­ing com­mu­ni­ties safe and help­ing of­fend­ers to make a fresh start.”

The men and women are also ex­posed to a dif­fer­ent cul­ture as they have lunch in the tem­ple with ev­ery­one else. “The cross-cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence helps break down bar­ri­ers and im­prove un­der­stand­ing among dif­fer­ent cul­tures, faiths and eth­nic­i­ties,” Paul adds.

“Giv­ing back to the com­mu­nity is very im­por­tant to me,” says one of the of­fend­ers. “It is also great to be out in the open air and com­plete my com­mu­nity work sen­tence in this way. We learn not only about gar­den­ing but also how peo­ple ac­cept each other for who they are, de­spite cul­tural dif­fer­ences.”

“I am a Mus­lim,” says an­other of­fender, “but the Sikh com­mu­nity wel­comes me, and ap­pre­ci­ates the work we do.”

These di­verse groups work­ing on this site, with their multi-lay­ered and over­lap­ping projects, make up a com­plex ecosys­tem of re­la­tion­ships that at first, seems like it should be un­work­able. One would not say they are a nat­u­ral fit. Then again, that is the beauty of grow­ing food: Ev­ery tribe needs to do this fun­da­men­tal thing, and what­ever faith one pro­fesses to nour­ish the soul, nour­ish­ing the body is also an act of de­vo­tion.

And so New Zealand’s big­gest gur­d­wara (which means the gate­way to the Guru) opens up land to grow food; lo­cal gar­den­ers share their knowl­edge with vol­un­teers who had learnt about plants in a dif­fer­ent cli­mate; ed­u­ca­tors and stu­dents gain a space to work on qual­i­fi­ca­tions; would-be gar­den­ers who have taken a wrong turn pro­vide free labour and ser­vices in ex­change for a sec­ond chance; tem­ple faith­ful cook for and engage with strangers; and ev­ery­one learns and grows.

In short, it is a vir­tu­ous cy­cle of sus­tain­abil­ity that in­vests in mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, di­ver­sity, civic duty, so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, hor­ti­cul­tural knowl­edge and yes, pure faith in that old adage about giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing.

Yet, what is go­ing on here is not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, even to the most ide­al­is­tic eyes. The fruit and nut trees spread out on the edges of the prop­erty are barely shoul­der height, sit­ting in bark mulch, and dwarfed still by palms and yuc­cas that are them­selves strug­gling for some dig­nity on the edges of the vast, drab carpark (there are enough bays for hun­dreds of cars). Weeds and grass chomp at the edges of cul­ti­vated ar­eas which are pro­duc­tive but purely func­tional. To the west of the tem­ple, an empty site prom­ises sports fields, day­care fa­cil­i­ties and other com­mu­nity-cen­tred ameni­ties; right now though, it’s a lot of mud and sand and heavy equip­ment.

So what ac­counts for the rush of home­com­ing I felt? Is it be­cause grow­ing food is the rea­son I gar­den? Or is it that no-one is truly a stranger here. Such ideals seem in­con­gru­ous with our times, but then again, gar­den­ers have al­ways been op­ti­mists, so here’s to them all liv­ing to­gether hap­pily ever af­ter.

Si­mar­jot Kaur, Ja­groop Kaur, Sher Singh and Jaski­rat Singh.

Deep Singh and Dil­shan Singh (left).

Cor­rec­tions su­per­vi­sor Vil­lami Tuip­u­lotu (stand­ing cen­tre) and se­nior su­per­vi­sor David Chan­dar (right).

Of­fend­ers on com­mu­nity work sen­tence.

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