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But in 2011, he says, a turban feels outdated and not in sync with the Western fashions adopted by Indian men.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

    It was not mandatory before Guru Govinda Singh established Khalsa. Not all sikhs are expected to be Khalsa. Khalsa is like army. So now you could safely go back to be the regular sikh and still be a sikh.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • jkaur

      arjun, i think you're a little confused. guru GOBIND singh jee merely codified the sikh faith, he did not create a new sect. all sikhs are khalsa, and all are expected to wear the uniform of the khalsa. a "regular sikh" is a complete sikh, sabat surat, with long hair and turban on the head.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • singh

      u need to do research it was manditory since the times of guru nanak there were 3 main conditions guru nanak told mardana to accept if he wanted to become a follower those were uncut kesh to not have any type of intoxications and worship the name of god as much as u can gurbani

      December 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  2. Anon

    Nice Hezbola tatto terrorist

    December 6, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • TurbanedSingh

      lol you funny

      December 6, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Sikhs are NOT Muslims! Reads about the subject before opening your ignorant hole!

      December 6, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  3. Herby Sagues

    Who would have thought an all knowing, all powerful deity creator of the universe would really care about human fashion.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Who would have thought that Jesus himself would like to keep long hair and beard.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  4. Shadow

    I love it when ANYONE decides to practice their beliefs in their own way. It shows that they are thinking for themselves and not behaving as some doctrine dictates. They put a modern interpretation on an established belief. That's awesome. Beliefs and practices that are too rigid lose their young people over petty issues.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Sikhism is the one of the youngest and the most modern religion in the world. It was created just about 500 years ago while Christianity for example was created thousands of years ago. So, the teachings of Sikhism reflects that time difference in a great deal. Following Christianity by the book is almost impossible these days whereas there are millions of Sikhs who are living the modern life and follow their religion the way it was supposed to be.

      Everything requires a discipline. Nobody like rules but we need rules in everything we do. People these days are willing to create their own version of the religion as it suits their needs, it may make some people happy but that doesn't make it right.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  5. TropicalTeg

    losing the turban for style choices??? thats absurd.

    Check out Waris Ahluwalia, that dude has more style than half of hollywood put together. Having a turban has only been a benefit to me, people remember me, know what i stand for, and its so easy to break the ice with women. People who lost it are just scared of nothing.

    Grow some cajones people.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Proud Turbunator

      I could not have agreed more with you. Turban has always made me stand out of the crowd; instant recognition. No doubt, there are sections of society, living in ignorance but that pocket is very small in comparison to good human beings around. You just need an eye to see those people.

      December 7, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  6. lance corporal

    if your religion has a clothing requirement it is missing the point, what's next magic underwear???

    December 6, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Kevfromsd

      Lance, I hope your not Christian with a comment like that. Ever read the bible? It clearly states that woman should cover their hair. That's why Mary did it and the nuns do. I have nothing against religion if it betters a person. Period.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Raavyn

      That's Mormonism.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Shadow

      Kevfromsd, you can be religious without following the dictates of 2000 year old men. The essense of the belief has nothing to do with whether you cover your hair or not.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • lance corporal

      wow I can't believe you guys missed my point, yes virtually all the major religions have some sort of clothing requirement and ANY (and all) religions that think an all powerful god would busy itself with clothing considerations and actually enforce something that......silly is missing the point on god in a big way. and yes. I know, the magic undies are mormonism again that was my point that all these religions with codified rules to make god..... happy (I guess....) are utter nonsense

      December 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • BorisMKV

      The clothing has nothing to do with what God wants. He couldn't care less about what we wear. The clothes are there to remind the wearer of the things they believe and the promises they've made. The constant reminder of those promises often serves as a way to help them remember and act accordingly. I'm sorry sir, but it is *you* who has missed the point.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Kevfromsd

      Boris very well said. I just think all this hate and judging needs to stop. People need to start worrying about themselves, and stop bringing others down to make themselves feel better. The world doesn't revolve around you and your opinion doesn't mean jack except to you.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      It's not a clothing requirement. A turban is just a way to keep the long hair in place. If you believe that god created you then you have to say that our body (men or women) is a design from god. If the men were designed by the creator to have beard then we should not disrespect that by altering it. It's natural. If you cut your hair, they grow back, you cut it again they would grow back again, that's nature way of telling you, that we are no one to play with the design of the creator.

      I know lot people would say that some women have beard too, well then we are getting into a whole new debate about fashion, media, peer pressure etc.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • GuruKaSikh

      So why do fathers in churches wear special clothes..cant they just come in jeans and fashionable clothes...

      December 6, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  7. Kevfromsd

    Sikhs be wearing bandannas cause it match there clothes, they get caught in the wrong hood and filled up with holes.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  8. Beth

    Good looking men! I don't know enough about their religion to have a serious opinion but I think if they want to cut their hair and not wear a turban that's what they should do. I would hope they aren't doing so to hide who they are and as long as it isn't an act out of fear it seems like a positive thing to me. But what do I know. Not my religion.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Jamie

      I know. These guys are hotties! THat's exactly what I thought when I first glanced at the article. I feel so awfully American and vein and shallow even thinking that, but the boys are studs, that's for sure.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  9. Jet Li

    go to Torrance, Southbay California and you can see many of them around.. Southbay is comming little India now adays..

    December 6, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  10. mrmefco

    "against pat-downs of their turbans at airport security." Anything that can conceal a bomb or weapon will be searched- hat, turbin, etc.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Can I feel your mom's breast, that can conceal a bomb, depending if she's good enough.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  11. Pasha

    It was originally a symbol for the Muslims and primarily the Arabs. There is a very easy to spot difference between the two turban styles. Muslims wrap their cloth around the Kuffeya and Sikhs do not expose the Kuffeya.

    December 6, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  12. Alamin

    At some point in life we all get the chance to either strengthen our beliefs or change them. Let people be. systems have rules and those rules make the system work. No one is forcing anyone to change their ways. Attacking others with verbal whiplashing is juvenile. In the end this is the reality for all of different creeds and beliefs: you are going to die; check out; kick the bucket; see ya! To you your way and to me mine.

    December 6, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  13. mullahfullahbullah

    Sikh & ye shall find.

    December 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • SS

      too bad it's pronounced 'Sick' so your statement makes no sense.

      December 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  14. malmn

    Let's all be honest here. Turbans suck. They are uncomfortable and are really, really, ugly. And let's not to mention the nasty hair that's underneath. Come on Sihks, Get with the times. Get rid of the turban.

    December 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • cc

      moron

      December 6, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • moron is correct

      I love wearing mine, in winter keeps my head warm....

      just another dumb american who doesnt realize there are more things then under neath the rock that SOME choose to live in.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Dave

      Malmn is right. Look at those 2 guys in the pic above. They look great!! Good looking young men who appear happy and key word here – approachable! The turban is super ugly and so is the nasty, unkempt beard. If you photoshopped the beard and turbans onto those guys, then do a comparison shot....well, it's a no-brainer. The Turban, like the burka is super outdated and should go!

      December 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • A. Singh

      Say it to a Sikh's face, coward.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Daeminence

      When one becomes spiritual and accepts the will of the Lord in all humility vanity does not matter anymore. A person fully accepts him/ herself as complete as made by the Creator when they realize all the true inner self. Then nothing really matters, how you look to other's doesn't matter, you just want to be one with creator, you just want to be in peace. Every Sikh's duty is to do just that by remembering the Lord by seeing Him in everyone of his creations. Sikhs are required by their faith to keep themselves clean. A comb that they keep tucked in their hair is an article of faith and signifies a person's inner and outer cleanliness.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Why don't you get with the times and draw a new picture of jesus with a hair cut or a mo hawk. Next time you go to the church have a good look at the man you are bowing to.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  15. Bob

    fred, how's that daily goat sacrifice going? Got that fire flesh-burning hot yet? Better get on it. Your nasty egomaniac Christian god will be angry with you if you haven't.

    December 6, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • ;-)

      you nailed it to the cross

      December 6, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • what

      bob-u r still stuck with ur sacrifice questions, were you born in 700 BC or what? welcome to AD, dinosaur

      December 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  16. GSA

    @Colin – the turban is a symbol, Sikhs didn't only die fighting for the right to wear one as you say. When Sikhs say they died for the turban, it is a symbol of freedom and the right to practice a religion or to not practice. They fought for the rights of ppl to be equal and free and have the right to learn, explore and express themselves similarly how Americans have their flag or the eagle as their symbols of freedom. Actually Sikh views are actually more in -line with atheists. Many of my atheist friends are strongly against religion yet they have read the Guru Granth Sahib and related with its teachings of constant learning and growth in some way or another. Not many religious books out there that talk about the stars, multiple solar systems before Gallileo or ones that talk about dinosaurs and evolution of species but the Sikhs holy book does.

    December 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  17. GSA

    I'm Sikh born in Canada and I don't wear a turban and never did. My dad cut his hair when he moved to Canada in 77 because of prejudice and trouble getting hired, my Grandfather wears his to this day. I have had no issues with ppl wearing them or not, it's a choice. Our ancestors did fight for the right to wear turbans but that fight included all injustices which includes the right to choose what you wear or do not wear as well. I choose not to.
    Like @Reality said, this was an interesting piece, next topic!

    December 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • mullahfullahbullah

      I was brought up Catholic and we stopped doing masses in Latin in the 60's. Things change and I am sure those that do not hear mass in Latin or Sikhs who no longer wear turbans will cause lightning bolts to come at us. I am agnostic now and support most belief systems if they are based on treating your neighbor like you want to be treated. Almost forgot all those Catholics that went to hell for eating meat on Friday but now it is now OK. Religions should be Darwinian too or we would still be burning witches.

      December 6, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Anoher Excuse

      ...can't get a job? Search online for the CEO of Master Card, a turban wearing sikh man with full beard. If your dad couldn't find a doesn't mean the rest of us can't. Lame Excuse!

      December 6, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  18. Reality

    I play golf with my retired Sikh neighbor once a week. He never wears a turbin and is always clean shaven. He and his wife go the local Sikh temple every Saturday. Next topic!!

    December 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Reality

      Ooops, make that "turban"! :0

      December 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  19. Colin

    Ever heard a group of atheists arguing over something as utterly trivial and unimportant as the "obligation" to wear a piece of cloth on their heads?

    "Sikhs have given their lives for the right to wear turbans," he says." Says it all. This is one of the ridiculous outcomes of religion that caused Dawkins to – very acuratly – name his book "The God Delusionn".

    December 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • fred

      And, atheists have given up the joy and personal growth attributed to fine organizations like the Boy Scouts because they will not have reverence for anyone’s freedom to believe in what they choose.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Colin

      Way to twist it Fred. The children of atheists are prohibited from being in the boy scouts. They are the last group left that are banned.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • fred

      Colin
      As a Boy Scout I did not even know there was such a ban. We had a few gays and would stick up for them in the public school yards where they were picked on. Gays were not picked on in the Scouts. Political activists came in ruined everything. Our leader was a Buddhist so God was not brought up often in a religious context. As kids we followed and recited the Boy Scout Law. One was reverence. We were reverent and thought nothing less of the kids that said there was no God. God was not a big deal for atheist or theist at that age; we were too busy ripping legs of grasshoppers and such.
      Just like Stalin the battle was for the minds of the children so Atheist and other adults began to attack the Scouts. The cub scout troop was the gang for those of us without family. Now, you have the kids acting out prision gangs. Nice progress

      December 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • fred

      That is the whole point: atheists adhere to doctrinal truths of Dawkins like Sikhs to their turbans. Look at the massive support from the atheist community for the military school graduate that could not lower his head. The symbol of the atheist is not to bow at the slightest hint of Deity. That is just as petty as insisting on turban head gear. Ripping a 3 foot memorial cross out of the middle of the desert where it stood in honor of war dead for 60 years is every bit as petty.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Bob

      fred, how's your daily goat sacrifice going? Got that flesh-burning fire stoked up yet? Better hurry or your sicko Christian god will be angry with you.

      December 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Iconoclast

      @fred, the boy scouts are a bigoted organization. I was raised Jewish and was bullied and ostracized when I tried to become a boy scout. How exactly is that having "reverence" for what someone else believes? How is banning athiests having reverance for what someone else believes?

      December 6, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Shadow

      Fred, you are totally off-base about the atheist not bowing. Bowing is the affirmative act in question. Not bowing is not a symbol. Standing quietly, but not bowing, is showing respect for other's beliefs without participating in them. Your statement is not logical. Bowiing is NOT the same as insisting on a turban. Requiring the soldier to bow would be like insisting on a turban.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Shadow

      Also, Fred, the scout troop that my son was in absolutely would not let you become an Eagle Scout unless you professed a duty to god. It is sad that boys who would have really enjoyed the scouting experience could not because they didn't have a religion. Some YMCA's offer an alternative called Indian Guides, which doesn't require a religious affiliation.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • fred

      Icon
      Sorry to hear that, sounds like different troops in different areas following their leader. Everything you say goes against the character it was to foster in a child.

      @shadow -the shadow knows............I don't get it, why not bow out of respect for another person or belief. I would not wear a turban because of what it represents but I would respect those that wear one if they are respectable.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Shadow

      Fred, you're still not getting it. Standing quietly is showing respect. Bowing is participating in a religious action. Would you wear a turban and grow a beard to show respect to Muslims? No, you wouldn't. Then you also would not bow to show respect to Christians.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • fred

      Shadow
      Thanks, That would be a misconception on my part. I did not assign that much weight to a simple bow. When I see all the gold, fancy hats and gold staff of the Pope it looks silly to me yet I imagine the Pope does not think so.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  20. Slartibartfast

    They whip their headscarves back and forth.

    December 6, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • marbles

      And singh-a about the moon-a in-a June-a!

      December 6, 2011 at 11:04 am |
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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.