Young Indian Sikh members praying after a turban-tying ceremony known as “dastar bandi”, traditionally held to mark the coming of age of male Sikhs, at a temple in Amritsar.—AFP Photo
Young Indian Sikh members praying after a turban-tying ceremony known as “dastar bandi”, traditionally held to mark the coming of age of male Sikhs, at a temple in Amritsar.—AFP Photo

AMRITSAR: The evening turban-tying class in the Sikh-dominated Indian city of Amritsar is packed with pre-teen boys learning a centuries-old tradition — that religious leaders fear is under threat.

Over the next 90 minutes, the instructors unfurl long strips of cloth in vibrant hues from indigo to burgundy, and proceed to knot, pleat and finally tie them carefully around the boys' heads.

The most visible symbol of Sikh pride and identity, the turban is an eight-metre piece of cloth, used by Sikh men to manage the long hair which their religion forbids them from cutting.

But in India, young Sikh men are increasingly putting fashion before tradition — cutting their hair short and shunning the turban completely.

It has also been abandoned by many members of the sizeable Sikh diaspora in countries like the United States, where Sikhs have been attacked over the mistaken belief that the turban marks them as extremists.

Such a motive has been suggested for the recent killings at a Sikh temple in the US state of Wisconsin where a gunman — with alleged white supremacist links — gunned down six worshippers.

Sikh boys are expected to tie and wear the turban by the time they reach adolescence, and 12-year-old Upneet Singh began attending the “turban clinic”, as the classes in Amritsar are popularly known, about two weeks ago.

“I go to a religious school where the turban is compulsory at my age, so I come here to learn how to tie it,” he says.

It is so important that observant Sikhs in the Indian military wear them instead of helmets even in frontline combat situations.

For religious leaders such as Avtar Singh, president of the trust that runs Sikhdom's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, forsaking the turban is tantamount to a rejection of the Sikh way of life.

“The turban is the Sikh identity, it is a sign of our self-respect, our pride,” the bearded 71-year-old told AFP at his offices near the temple.

“No Sikh is complete without his turban,” insisted Singh, who blames increasing exposure to western influences for undermining religious traditions among India's 20 million-plus Sikhs.

“We live in a very westernised environment. And these days, Sikh parents don't teach their children enough about our history so they don't adopt our customs,” he said.

Fashion or survival instinct?

Shop worker Manjinder Singh cut his hair for the first time seven years ago, when he was 15.

“I cut it because it was more fashionable to keep it short. It's more modern,” he told AFP, as he sat down for a trim at a local barber's.

“My parents weren't pleased, but they just gave up trying to change my mind,” he said.

If some Sikhs have willingly cast aside the turban for reasons of style, others have unwillingly done so out of a sense of self-preservation.

The assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards triggered an anti-Sikh pogrom that left thousands dead, and saw many Sikhs shave their beards and cut their hair to escape the violence.

Jaswinder Singh, who was 15 at the time of the riots, said the experience was a personal turning point that reinforced his faith.

“So many Sikhs died when I was young, it made me realise that I wanted to grow up and do something for my faith, for my community,” he told AFP.

In 1997, when he began to notice young Sikhs frequenting hair salons, he knew he had found his cause, and in 2003 the Amritsar-based advocate established his “turban pride” movement, including regular tying clinics.

According to Singh, fewer than half of all Sikh youths in Punjab state wear turbans today, and he set up the clinic as part of a multi-pronged effort to bring them back into the religious fold.

Singh says his classes, held six days a week, are often full and have been a major success, paving the way for around 50 similar clinics to be set up by other Sikhs in Punjab.

Poems and beauty contests

In addition, Singh organises turban-tying competitions, turban-themed poetry readings, and a beauty contest called “Mr Singh International” open only to Sikhs who don the headgear.

He also stages mass turban-tying ceremonies known as “dastar bandi”, traditionally held to mark male Sikhs' coming of age. Although the dastar bandi used to be a key event in every Sikh male's life, its popularity has waned as families have abandoned the tradition.

Under Singh's scheme, dozens of boys are initiated in monthly ceremonies during which priests and other religious figures tightly wrap turbans around their heads to the sounds of the congregation chanting.

In a bid to ensure that the boys do not shed the headgear for more exciting options as they get older, Singh has developed a computer programme — Smart Turban 1.0 — which showcases 60 different ways to tie a turban.

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Comments are closed.

Comments (29)

August 13, 2012 1:20 pm
Buqua is conservatism.
August 13, 2012 1:07 pm
I feel sorry for u.
August 20, 2012 2:15 am
It's Canada, not Kaneda. Emphasis on first syllable.
Rana Amir
August 13, 2012 9:53 am
what rubbish
JMk (usa)
August 13, 2012 10:38 am
Is discarding turban & cutting hair a cardinal sin ? An issue that Sikh community should decide within by reformation. Every religion has conservative vs. reformed tussel. Young generation is shunning the turban, cutting hair - an issue that Sikh community has to tackle, young generation wants to be the part of main stream especially in western societies. Hard choice !!
August 13, 2012 8:44 am
Imran, Same thing applies to Muslims also
August 13, 2012 11:09 am
What do you mean. Everyone has the right to practice what he believe. If people are judgmental it is not his people,, the issue is with the people who fail to understand
August 13, 2012 1:24 pm
Burqua is conservatism. It is segregation. Muslims need to grow up and establish laws to protect women from bad muslims in their countries. Muslim men supposed to walk with gaze down and not looking who is wearing buqua and who is not wearing burqua.
Jogesh Narula
August 13, 2012 6:51 am
Way to go man. Now days we have half hearted Middle aged sikhs, who wear Caps over their Patkas. You can call them Rentier sikhs, since most of them dont do anything, but live off the Properties they have rented out. Most of them Chew on Paan.
August 13, 2012 8:17 am
Wearing Turban is symbol of conservatism. Its time for Sikh community to abandon it and join the mainstream Indian culture. It should be restricted for Festival days and for remaining part of year and places as all other people of the world are living. When we see a Sikh with Turban, it looks if he is shouting with full volume and telling all other people that he is a Sikh.
August 13, 2012 8:57 am
Is wearing Burqua not conservatism?
August 13, 2012 9:19 am
Everybody in my family have cut their hair. It does not hake us any less Sikhs.We may not be the Khalsa as advocated by Guru Gobind Singh,but we are still Sikhs that follow the Gurbani.Times have changed and so have perceptions.
August 13, 2012 2:24 pm
Imran, just wondering if this article was about wearing niqaab and burqa... Would be interesting to see if there were as many dislikes as the one to your post...
August 13, 2012 3:12 pm
Hi Imran Join Mainstream Indian Culture? Only a person who has no idea about India and its culture can say something like this,
Srini, San Jose
August 14, 2012 6:44 am
I dont like the tone but i agree some of your points. Every religion should be bit modernized with the changing times without loosing core values. It is good for the whole world. Make religion practice private matter but show the core values of religion public - that is love,caring,helping - every religion teaches that. I am religious but with flexibilities. I teach these values to my kids. Few generation ago, a brahmin may have thought ,not having pony tail is anti god, a south indian not having dhothi is disrespect to the tradition,muslim not having beard is anti islam, the list goes on....However today we see less of these customs, and this is for better. Did it make people any less religous? I dont think so.
August 13, 2012 4:49 pm
Just an unrelated note from me...I was wondering where you're exactly from as I saw alot of anti-Pakistan posts from you. Now I know :)
August 13, 2012 10:29 pm
You will find millions of Hindus, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian begging around the world. Has anybody ever seen a turbaned Sikh or Khalsa begging for food any where in the world? Keeping turban, looking different and always in minority is difficult but it motivates you to work hard and do better than the rest. Cutting hair is a easy way out. Fighting against all odd stacked against you and coming up on top is all the fun in life. In 1880 turbaned Sikhs came to Vancouver Canada. Why didn't Hindus or Muslims or Bengali, Tamil or Gujratis living close to Ocean venture out. Why it had to be Sikhs from a landlocked place, never seen an Ocean venture out to come to Canada of their own free will to work hard in cutting trees and make a better living. This is the spirit of Khalsa. I consider Turban a brand name. Many cut hair to look handsome but I see plenty of people with cut more ugly than some of the Turbaned Sikhs. It all depends on you how you look and how you carry yourself with or without turban.
August 13, 2012 11:05 pm
So you're saying Sikhs can't be from Pakistan and have opinion about it? Now I know where you're from.
August 14, 2012 3:01 am
Uncut hair on head as well as on face, and Turban, were requirements of Khalsa, as preached by the tenth Guru Shri Gobind Singhji. But there are many Sikhs and North Indian Hindus, who have high regards for the first nine Gurus, who did not mention this requirement of long hair and Turban. There are people like Kabir Bedi, who are true followers of Guru Nanak and consider themselves as religious Sikhs, but do not wear Turban. A Turban is like a burqa for a Muslim woman. Any Muslim lady who opts not to wear a burqa does not become a less Muslim by any criteria.
Zaheer Arif
August 14, 2012 6:00 am
Turban doesn't look bad, to me it is more fashionable and men wearing Turban look more stylish.
August 14, 2012 7:00 am
Of course its applies to Muslims and others as well.
August 14, 2012 9:30 am
I think there is logical mismatch between wearing burqa and tying turban, syntactically and semantically. While burqa could be and indeed has been, projected as injustice to women, tying turban is inconvenient at best.
August 14, 2012 4:14 pm
Turban is the identity of Sardars. It is majestic and looks good. Keep up.
August 14, 2012 5:41 pm
It is the right view. I applaud your courage.
a sikh from usa
August 14, 2012 5:58 pm
i totally agree with above. wearing turban is an act of faith. there should not be any comparison between turban and burqua. a sikh with a turban is far more prominent than anyone else. sikhs take a pride in turban and it stands them apart from the crowd. imagine a sikh without turban and cut a hair, they lose their identity. it takes only few minutes to wear a turban and not a hasle.
August 15, 2012 7:27 am
Singh-kaneda, i think u have not been to India, Go to Bathinda,Ludhina, Amritsar u will find many Sikhs begging on the raod
Cyrus Howell
August 15, 2012 6:32 pm
Religious teachers always think religious practices are under threat. That is called History.
August 19, 2012 12:57 am
You do not have to degrade other people to feel superior. There are 1 billion Hindus, 100 times more than Sikhs. It is obviously much more likely that a Hindu is a beggar than a Sikh is.
August 21, 2012 12:52 am
Rakia, In Pakistan there are not too many Sikhs but we have few thousand Sikhs living in Punjab and I tell you their turban is the most beautiful apparel you can ask as a Punjabi. Unlike West, the turban earns Pakistani Sikhs respect, pride and status. I know it sounds very strange but it is the truth. I hate to see our Sikhs abandoning this fantastic tradition.
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