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.