December 6th, 2011
10:52 AM ET
By Moni Basu, CNN
New Delhi (CNN) - On a Saturday afternoon, Balbir Singh and Malkeet Singh find sanctuary from the Indian capital's chaos in the landmark Bangla Sahib gurdwara, or Sikh temple. The two friends, like so many young Sikhs, have come on this day to reflect on their faith.
They acknowledge their sin is highly visible.
Neither has a beard. Neither is wearing a turban. Both are important symbols of their religion, intrinsic to Sikh identity.
"I know it's wrong to cut my hair," says Balbir Singh, his head covered with a printed black and white cotton scarf - both men and women must cover their hair before entering the gurdwara.
But in 2011, he says, a turban feels outdated and not in sync with the Western fashions adopted by Indian men.
"Besides," he says, with a smile, "women don't like turbans."
Whether it's style or more pragmatic reasons like getting a job, many younger Sikhs think the turban old hat.
It's a trend that has alarmed the leadership of the world's 25-million-strong Sikh community and fueled debate on whether you can still be considered a good Sikh if you cut your hair.
That debate intensified with the release of a new movie called "I Am Singh," which looks at the hardships of Sikhs in America who were mistaken for terrorists after the September 11, 2001, attacks because of their turbans.
"We live for the turban. We die for the turban," say the lyrics of a song in the movie.
Manjit Singh, the local president of the Sikh nationalist political party Shiromani Akali Dal, says he hopes the movie will help revive Sikh pride.
"Sikhs have given their lives for the right to wear turbans," he says. "It's a centuries-old tradition. It's extremely important that we maintain it."
Sikhism rose up 500 years ago in India as a monotheistic religion that rejected the caste system and scriptures of Hinduism.
Sikhs have worn turbans since 1699, when the last living Sikh guru bestowed a unique Sikh identity based on five articles of faith. Among them were a steel bracelet signifying a reality with no beginning or end; a sword representing resolve and justice; and unshorn hair as a gift of God and a mark of Sikh identity.
The turban, tied in distinctive fashion, was a way to manage long hair and serves as the most instant recognition of a Sikh.
In India, the turban was first abandoned in large numbers in anti-Sikh riots that erupted after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, says Manjit Singh.
Amidst bloodshed that killed thousands, Sikhs took off their turbans and cut their hair in an attempt to conceal their faith.
That trend was further accelerated by India's economic growth and rapid Westernizaton in the 1990s.
And then came the 9/11 attacks, when some people in the United States and other Western nations mistook Sikhs as followers of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
Many Sikhs again folded up their turbans in fear.
Since then, Sikh organizations have worked hard to bring back those who gave up their outward identity. In the United States, they have been fighting for their rights to wear turbans in identification card photos and against pat-downs of their turbans at airport security.
"Sikh identity is threatened today," says Harinder Pal Singh, a member of the top Sikh religious administration based in Punjab, the state that is home to a majority of Sikhs in India.
"Our primary concern is preserving the Sikh character."
He says it's not so much that young people are any less spiritual today, but the main ideals of Sikhism get masked by the complexities of the contemporary world.
To that end, Harinder Pal Singh runs unconventional classes on Sikhism outside the traditional learning institutions.
One of his students, Rajendra Singh, shaved off his beard and cut his hair so that he could get acting roles. No one, he says, was going to hire a turbaned man for the stage.
It's also difficult to get a job in the food industry. Many restaurants don't want to hire heavily bearded, turbaned men, even if they wear hair nets.
Rajendra Singh, enrolled in religious classes for four months now, disagrees with his teacher on the turban issue. He says he can still follow the Sikh way of life even if his hair is shorn.
But Harinder Pal Singh shakes his head. Sikhs, he says, should not be turbanless.
Then he takes the podium before about a 100 men and women who have gathered to relearn their religion.
One of them is Sarbjeet Singh, who until a few months ago was a clean-shaven, short-haired man.
Rereading the principles of Sikhism, he says, prompted him grow back his hair, his beard. He was born again, even though his father in America won't wear a turban.
"I have peace of mind now," he says.
In another part of New Delhi, Manjit Singh of the Akali Dal brings up the subject of turbans at a bi-weekly meeting at a south Delhi gurdwara. His party sponsors camps for children. There, and in Sikh schools, turbans are mandatory for boys when they reach the seventh grade.
Manjit Singh says he doesn't get why young Sikhs feel they have to lose the turban. He recalls how in his younger days, he wore turbans to turn heads. He even wore one dancing at Studio 54, the famed New York discotheque.
"If you want to make a fashion statement, this is what will get you attention, he says, pointing to his impeccably tied burgundy turban that matches the shirt peaking out from his jacket.
Turban shop owner Jaswinder Singh sells turbans - more than 5 yards in length - in almost 200 different colors. Men bring in their shirts and pants to match them perfectly.
"When I see someone with a short beard or cut hair, I tell him he should be complete. If you cut your hair, you are not a Sikh," he says.
Though India's prime minister is a Sikh and always wears a turban, Jaswinder Singh believes young people do not have enough role models to inspire them in their faith. None of India's mega Bollywood stars are turbaned, he says.
But now, there's "I Am Singh." The reviews in the Indian media are not great but Sikh community leaders are hopeful that it might make Sikh men take another look at themselves.
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