home
RSS
Losing the Turban: Indian Sikhs at odds on essentials
Sikhs Balbir Singh (right) and Malkeet Singh chose to cut their locks, an act they acknowledged was wrong.
December 6th, 2011
10:52 AM ET

Losing the Turban: Indian Sikhs at odds on essentials

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But in 2011, he says, a turban feels outdated and not in sync with the Western fashions adopted by Indian men.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.

Sikhs discuss the issue of vanishing turbans at a political party meeting in New Delhi.

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."

A decade after Sikh murder over 9/11, community continues to blend in and stand out

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.

Sarbjeet Singh returned to his Sikh roots. His tattoos reflect his spirituality.

"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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Sikh

soundoff (242 Responses)
  1. sac longchamp soldes

    Go by means of these more mature items and look for ones that tickle a person's fancy. Pull them all out and revel in them instead of the new object you¡¯re planning on getting. sac longchamp soldes http://www.saclongchampsoldes2013

    April 15, 2013 at 3:57 am |
  2. deep singh

    i agree with you.....

    September 29, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  3. Kishan

    I may need to email you privately about a siilmar relationship I have with a close friend of mine. Definitely has led to interesting conversations. She has never tried to "convert" me to her "beliefs" so I often feel weird around her whenever I talk about Jesus or Christian holidays, which many of them she and her family celebrate. If you get a chance to lend me your ear (um, email inbox) I would really respect your opinion/guidance on how you would handle the situation with grace (because I know you would!).pinkpowerhouseatgmail

    September 9, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  4. Harminder Singh

    It's seems that Tony (if that's your real name) seems to only focus on the negative aspects of the Sikh's, but fails to mention all the great things Sikhs have done, for example sacrifice 80,000 lives in ww1 and ww2 fighting along side the British. I suggest you try reading up on a little bit of Sikh history it will be enough for you to recognize our sacrifices. Who needs the RSS when we have great Sikhs Like Tony Kumar.

    August 4, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  5. JSS

    Khalistan Zindabad

    May 28, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  6. Turban

    Unquestionably imagine that that you stated. Your favourite reason seemed to be on the internet the easiest thing to have in mind of. I say to you, I definitely get irked whilst other people consider worries that they just do not recognize about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the entire thing without having side effect , other folks could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

    April 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  7. turban

    Great post. I used to be checking constantly this blog and I am inspired! Extremely useful information specifically the closing phase 🙂 I care for such info a lot. I was seeking this certain info for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

    April 21, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  8. hapy

    biggest discrace to sikhs.. why would u even get a cross tatto... just shows how m uch faith u have in ur religion... its better if u just convert

    February 21, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  9. Mandeep Singh

    Very well and truly said. Like your post.

    Sikh books

    February 15, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  10. harpreet

    this guy who thinks turbans are outdated needs to get himself cheked out.. he is acting like he has so many girlfrnds, u live in india ther is no way of even getting girls wen u do try u get beat up, u guys make urself look so badd, u guys should just start going to the mandar instead and become hindus or sumthing.. DISCRACE

    January 10, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  11. Tony Singh

    Really is this what Sikhs have come to, all we are bothered about is the Turban. We have rampant corruption and abuse in our Gurdewara, we have the largest number of female fotiece abortion in India and probably in the rest of the world, we have Gurdewara's based on caste, we have the highest rate alcoholism in England (highest of liver damage), being born and raised in the UK, the girls are now drinking more then the guys. Google "Sagoo and Bus Driver" you will see a man with a Turban and Beard who is around 60 something who was drink driving and drove a double decker bus into a low bridge.

    Sikhs think that having a Turban makes them a better person, they have this stuck up arrogance that they are better then the other cut hair Sikhs, why don't you guys Google "New York Gurdewara fight" again you will see Sikhs with Turbans and Beards fighting INSIDE the Gurdewara.

    Because of the high rate of alcholism Sikh men love to physically abuse there wives but yet the community does not want to deal with this.

    Fact: HAVING A TURBAN DOES NOT MAKE YOU ANY BETTER OF A PERSON, TURBAN DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU ARE CLOSER TO GOD, TURBAN DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE A RIGHTEOUS PERSON.

    December 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Pranav Singh

      Exactly. Turban has now become the Janeu for sikhs. All stress is on hair and none on values. Amritdhari sikh is the neo-Brahmin. Sikhism is measured by the density of one's hair. Brahmanwad has done a back door entry into sikh faith and is here to stay. IT will eat the religion away.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Eshwar

      baron. I want to request u to pls merove the turban from this photo. The nazis abused the swastika- a ancient hindu mystical symbol by turning it into a crooked cross and placing that symbol all over the place while committing their heinous crimes against humanity.and now if the same is done to the turban usually worn by sikhs who are very peaceful, hardworking and also very brave and honourable warriors. they might be mistaken for islamic terrorists and might become a victim of hate crime.The average joe on the street certainly cannot make out the difference between a arab headgear and a sikh turban.

      April 4, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • jasdeep singh

      @tony singh : if wearing a turban doesnt make a person a good human being then CAN U GURANTEE THT ALL OF THE WORLD POPULATION THT DOESNT WEAR A TURBAN ARE ALL SAINTS AND REFLECTION OF JESUS CHRIST AND GURU NANAK.

      I WAS IN NEW YORK WHEN THE GURDWARA FIGHT TOOK PLACE, IF THERE WERE TURBANED MEN PART OF THE FIGHT THEN THERE WERE ALSO CLEAN SHAVEN MEN WHO ACCOMPLICED THEM IN THE FIGHT, GO AND SEE THE VIDEO AGAIN U HUGELY MISTAKEN GUY. PEOPLE WHO DNT HAVE GUTS TO STAND UPTO THEIR FAITH, HAVE CONFIDENCE TO WEAR A TURBAN, THEY FIND EXCUSES AND BLAME THE TURBANED SIKHS FOR THT. I CAN SHOW U MANY CLEAN SHAVEN SIKHS WHO HAVE DONE SO MANY WRONG THINGS, BEATEN THEIR WIVES FOR DOWRY, CHEATED THEIR NRI WIVES AFTER GETTING THEIR GREEN CARDS, CHEATED PEOPLE WITH MONEY, COMMITED CRIMES IN PUNJAB. SO IF A TURBAN CANT GUARANTEE A GOOD BEHAVIOR, A CLEAN SHAVEN LOOK CANT ALSO GUARANTEE GOOD DEEDS ALSO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 9, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  12. Harminder

    In this article, Balbir singh commented " besides women don't like turbans". My question to him is " did our Guru tell us to wear or not wear turban for women". This guy is completely off track

    December 8, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  13. Sarvjeet

    It is an easy way out to say either adhere to it completly or just take it (the turban) off. We all are work in progress and at different stages of our lives we to connect to our religion more than we did on the past (if you are a work in progress in the right direction). Calling Turban an old fashioned hat and chosing not to wear it (and cut your hair) is not a work in progress in the roght direction.

    No Crown No King, No Turban No Singh............ Thats the bottom line.........

    December 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  14. Sandy the Sardarni on Sans Turban

    Aman:
    You are absolutely right then I guess, if you follow than follow completely. Tell everyone who wears a turban, eats kebab, and drinks jw that they are not fit to be Sikh , or aren't true Sikh..... You are now telling millions with turbans that they aren't true Sikhs friend, because they don't adhere to every single item....

    What about females? There are sects of Sikhism where females where turbans as well... Those that don't.... Are head scarves ok.

    Bottom line is if we want our religion to remain strong, we have to evolve to allow it to be all inclusive.

    Maybe you check the stats and actually see how many Sikh households are retaining the turban....

    I'm not degrading the turban. The Sikh who fulfills are the facets of the religion in their entirety is truly noteworthy and admirable, however....sorry to say the turbaned kebab muncher is still a Sikh, just as the non turbaned one who visits the gurudwara and prays.

    A priest should definitely follow all the rules I agree, just as any other religion, but we need to address the fact thAt many more males are opting out of the turban than in. Ask why that is, understand why that is, and just as our gurus did 500 years ago, find a solution.....stop be hot headed and ignore the problem just because it's "the rule"... Because that mindset is no different from the religions we were revolting against in the first place (and I mean that in all repe t because even those religions are no evolving to need the needs....

    December 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Harminder

      Being a sikh and being called a sikh are two different things. It's very easy to be called a sikh but difficult to become and live as a sikh. Anyone can do anything and still call himself to be a sikh but that does not mean that he is a sikh in true sense whether he/she is kebab eater turbaned or bear trimer who goes to gurdwara. My question to all of them is " why do you want to be called a sikh". If it is so difficult to follow all the sikh principles for them , then why don't be what you are, just don't call yourself a sikh. There is no need to evolve to be all inclusive. Include only those who strictly follwo the advice of the Guru, not those who follow their own seat of the pant hunches. Understand first the meaning of a Sikh: A sikh means student of the true Guru, By the way, keeping long hair as a basic tenent of sikhism started at the time of Guru Nanak, term Sehaj Dhari sikh was adopted by those who wnated to evolve, just like you want to evolve it even further. that's what happens whe you want to EVOLVE, you dissolve, slowly into nothing. If you want to belong to sikhism, then be a complete sikh, get indepth knowledge of sikhism, read sikh history and live the life of a sikh.

      December 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  15. krm1007

    NEW YORK: Renowned Indian activist and novelist Arundhati Roy has decried the silence of the international community over the continued “brutal Indian occupation of Kashmir” and said Kashmiris should be given the right to self-determination……
    She said so little was known about the atrocities being committed by more than half a million Indian troops, the continuing repression and indignities let loose on Kashmiri men, women and children.
    More than 700,000 troops were concentrated in the tiny valley, with checkpoints at every nook and corner of Kashmiri towns and cities. The huge Indian presence, she added, was in sharp contrast with 160,000 US troops in Iraq.
    Ms Roy alleged that Indian army or security personnel were killing young children, adding that Kashmiris were not radical Islamists or jihadists as India portrayed them. She deplored the Indian government’s attempts to demonise Kashmiris who were moderate Muslims.

    December 7, 2011 at 11:41 am |
1 2 3 4 5
Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.