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But in 2011, he says, a turban feels outdated and not in sync with the Western fashions adopted by Indian men.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

    Smooth a** playas, they know what's up. Religion is fine and good until it gets in the way of nookie

    December 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  2. wisdom4u2

    WooooW! Those are some handsome looking dudes! D aaaamn!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Lisa D.

      was thinking the same thing, d**n!!!

      December 6, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  3. Ignorance is bliss

    Sikhs are not muslims. Sikhs believe in 'one' universal god for everyone. We do not believe in 'my god and your god', Sikhism teaches that there is only one god and lot of different paths to get there. The entire religion is based on equality of all human beings. Women have equal rights as men in Sikhism. We don't say: "if you don't believe in Jesus, you're going to hell". Sikhism had fought for the protection of other religions. Sikhism is a very modern religion based on its believes. Next time, get some information on the subject before you open your mouth.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Paul

      either way... these two guys are going to get sooooo much babe after this article, God will be jealous ...

      December 6, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Lisa D.

      The article said monotheistic, meaning the belief in one God. take a chill pill....

      December 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  4. Paul

    cool looking guys ... yeah, way to go, shed the turban... you'll be getting tons of chicks now ... can't but support your choice, now go out and bang your way to nirvana, then laugh at the turban jerkers ... he he ... cool!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      I am Sikh man with turban and beard. Being in the U.S., I've had many attractive girl friends in my life, white, black, Indian or whatever. I've slept with a lot of women. These guys don't know what they are talking about.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Paul

      right .. anyone can say that ... you suck, lose the turban, like these guys did ... these two dudes are in for a long ride and you can only make empty blog claims ... sorry, but a turban is attractive only to turbed women ... 😉
      Good luck anyway

      December 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Like I said Paul, Ignorance is bliss! It's not you, it's the family you were raised in.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  5. street462

    i like a good theological debate of religions impact on the human race as anyone..i will stay out of this one because iam tired.. but this quote was in my opinion the most telling "Besides," he says, with a smile, "women don't like turbans." now thats a basic core decision right there.. based on something older that even religion its self...

    December 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • turbanlover

      I like guys who wear turbans and keep their hair.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  6. Sick

    Sick people should visit doctor immediately. and normal people should take a flue shot so that they dont become sick.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • u r rude

      and ignorant and arrogant. get over yourself, now!!!

      December 6, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Paul

      better sick than you ...

      December 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  7. ramaman

    just do the right thing

    December 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • PleaseUseLogic

      Do .... not..... sikh ........ the treasure!

      December 6, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • To each his own

      Aman Ali will look better with the Turban, he needs to stop flashing that empty forehead of his.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  8. Ranjit

    The first Guru did not mandate wearing a turban or any of the 5 "K's" that diehard fundamentalists advocate. This came later, much later, and was never a mandate of this religion. If only those that advocate the true principles of the religion simply followed its teachings wholeheartedly rather than embrace the cultural trappings that have become such an anachronism then the religion may actually have a hope of surviving another 500 years. Kind of like Hasidic Jews trying to foist their garb and lifestyles on all practicing Jews.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Sharon Kaur

      Don't you think Guru Nanak Dev Ji wore a turban for a reason? Looking back on Sikh history, each Sikh Guru has put an equal contribution to the religion as a WHOLE. What Guru Gobind Singh Ji did is just as equal to what Guru Nanak Dev Ji to Guru Arjun Dev Ji did. They were all the same light. You can't say those that follow the 5 K's are diehard fundamentalists. One of the most important aspects of Sikhism is to keep your hair. To remain the way God wanted you be to. When you cut your hair it grows back thicker and faster than it did before. It's supposed to be there so why are you cutting it. The importance of hair is written countless amounts of times in Guru Granth Sahib Ji as a tool for spirituality. Look it up and learn more about Sikhism instead of making assumptions through what you think Sikhism is all about.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • RSJ

      Would like to see the real picture of Guru Nanak, like Sharron claimed he wore a turban, I am yet to see the it, the last authentic picture I saw I was informed was of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, he was wearing a cap like a muslim person.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • Harminder Kaur

      Sikhi teaches in sincerity...if a person is without a turban and has a good heart he or she is better off than a person who ties a turban but sleeps around and hates others.. The point is about what is in the HEART.. But a person who has an open heart and is good hearted would not mind tying the turban.. He or she would respect it and ask God to let them tie it when they are stronger. It's like walking on a path full of poison ivy and shards of glass and sharp rocks.. you see your Goal/Destination ahead..the top the mountain.. And thus you put on a pair of sturdy shoes..now you can walk better on that path in the world..but it doesn't mean you have reached the top of the mountain.. The same idea is with the turban..it helps you in your spirituality.. It makes you confident and aware that you are to meet God not half naked girls. Also the turban was tied by Guru Nanak as well..if you read Bhai Vir Singh Ji's book Guru Nanak Chamatkar you'll see that Guru Ji tied approximately a meter and a half length turban cloth..also the tradition of tying a turban was started by the sixth Nanak, Guru Hargobind Sahib when emperor Jahangir ordered that no one but him and his top officials is allowed to tie a turban.. Then Guru Ji said that my Sikhs will tie TWO turbans.. When Jahangir said no one can sit on a platform more than 4 feet high, only he can..then Guru Ji made Akaal Takht Sahib with the platform higher than Jahangir's, saying that the highest platform/throne is for the Akaal/Undying God, not wordly kings. These things show us that our Guru advocates Freedom..and thus we love to tie a turban as a symbol of both freedom and our spiritual values.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  9. ageofenlightenment

    1699 was the height of the age of enlightenment when such as ideals all men are born 'eqaul' and freedom of speech. one man one vote. and etc ideals of denoucing divine rule of kings and qeens etc. so in India, came sikhism denouncing the hindu caste system.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  10. religiousfashion

    fashion change all the time. in the 16th century people in europe wore long hair..and the round heads worn by peasants became common after the peasnt revolts in europe after the french revolutions and american revolutions...so the sikh fashion of turban is just sympbolic fashion. like tradition come and go. like the black in saudi arabia wear black cloth to cover their faces in islam, it has nothing to do with religion but politics in religion.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • wittynotes

      Totally agree. People stick to the pagan rituals and forget the real purpose of the religion. No garb is needed, only good principles of coexistence.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      I wear my turban as a fashion statement and I get compliments all the time. A turban is a way to keep the long hair in place. Sikhs believe in design of the creator and do not try to alter that design by cutting their hair. It's mother nature.

      People cut their hair because they don't feel any pain and it grows back again. Why don't you try to cut your finger and see what happens. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

      December 6, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  11. religiousfashion

    It's religious fashion and has nothing to do with religion. Like a uniform, it helps identifies who is sikh or not and has nothing to do with any spiritual religion more like 'uniform' but has no 'religous' significance.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Why don't you go ahead and change Jesus's picture. It's time he gets a new look. Fool!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  12. UrbanDef

    Sikh guys are hot...look at those two in the pic!

    December 6, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Jez

      I was thinking that these two guys were hot too...

      December 6, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • breed11

      You think those guys are hot? Really? Not taste.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • MarileeBob

      They are so incredibly hot! Me likey.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • dec

      stop gushing like teenage girls!

      December 6, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • UrbanDef

      I'm actually a boy :p

      December 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • dec

      now, which of those two men look like girls to you?

      December 6, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • NYC

      I really think if they get rid of turbans, they would get a lot of action! Yeah, I agree they look hotter than most Indians I see.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Lisa D.

      These guys area waaaaayyyyy hot, I'm sure they will have no trouble meeting women.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  13. wb

    Your subhead says "Sikh murder after 9/11" but your story doesn't reference it.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  14. LetsBeCivil

    Yeah... what about those Christians that ate meat on Friday and went to hell? I'll bet they're p*ssed now. I shake my head anytime any human says they know what God wants.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Paul

      you must be doing a lot of masturbation ...

      December 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  15. Santa Fean

    Well we all should know religion is harmful....see how one looks "different" from the others? Did God really tell them not to cut their hair, their beard and to wear a turban? Any religion that sets itself apart with a different appearance smacks of massive ego? No? In fact that defines "religion"....massive ego on someone's part to tell the world that they are better. Better than you, of course!

    December 6, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Friend

      May G-d bless you.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • NowtrytoTHINK

      So you are saying that because they look, believe and act in a way different from you that THEY are the egotists?


      December 6, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • js

      It's this kind of ignorance and remarks that result in divisions and hatred. Learn – you will find it much more fulfilling.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • SinghFromUSA

      The beliefs in the Sikh Faith are meant to set the Bar high for individuals. The difference between a Taco-Bell $1 meat and a Restaurant $20 premium grade meat is that one just meets the standard and is cheap. The other exceeds the standard and is premium. The basic tenants of Sikhism were meant to set the Bar high, so that it takes lot of conviction and courage to adhere to these principals. I am not claiming that just because you wear a Turban and keep long hair that it gives you automatic Premium Club membership. But it sets the expectations, which is the key. Rest is left to the Individual to continue his learning (Sikh means a Learner).

      December 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  16. Aman

    The first guru of sikhism was Guru Nanak dev ji who was born in a hindu family. No religon is born, gurus or saints or messenger of made it. Be it sikhism or christianity or Islam or Hinduism.

    We were human before and we are still human. Respect all religion. I love Sikhism as I am a sikh person but so do I love Islam and chrisitianity as well as Hinduism. Who are we to judge anybody?

    I am a clean shaven sikh but when I go to my temple, I go with a clean heart, to pray. The guru or the God see my heart and not what my appearance.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Chris

      Aman, I believe in the good of humanity as well. There is great hope and calmness in the future certainly. Chris

      December 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • jparmar

      Waheguru ji ka khalsa waheguru ji ki fateh

      December 6, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Tina Lovelace

      I have never wrote a response before, but what you said touched my heart. I believe in what you said and how you said it. I loved what you said. I am Christian, but I am open minded and open hearted. No one has ever met the "Supreme One". We have our faiths and all faiths should be respected. I follow my heart and always ask God for guideance.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      No one says that wearing a turban or keeping long hair would give you an automatic admission to 'heaven'. It means nothing if your heart is not pure. But for a Sikh who does not follow these basic rules is like a christian saying I believe in Jesus but I don't like reading the bible.

      December 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  17. Ooorahh

    I swear, Atheists do more proselytizing than any other religion of the Belief Blog.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • John

      It's only a small minority. Don't listen to them, don't let them tell you that they are the future.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Logos

      It's called being reality based.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • coz

      atheists have empty heads!

      December 6, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  18. Askn

    This shows that how ignorant Americans are about other religions and their own religion, they don't know what's the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh! I wonder how American Troops recognize on the ground in Afghanistan between a TALIBAN and NON TALIBAN!
    Americans are such a Dumb race! They just got money but no brain! Oh forgot now they don't got money anymore!

    December 6, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Steve

      Of course, we did invent this internet thing that you're using to bash us. Sorry for the convenience.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • LetsBeCivil

      So... tell me: Just which religion is the "American" religion?

      December 6, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Dutch Cartoon Fan

      Blah, blah, blah. Tired of the third world ranters. Yes Americans are soooo dumb. We built the most powerful most technologically advanced civilization in the history of the human race because we're so dumb. Now, if you want to find truly ignorant people , just look in your own third world country. Oh, and "American" isn't a race. Idiot.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Kris

      I don't know if you've been informed or not, but "some" does not equal "all". There are bigoted people in every country, and calling all Americans ignorant due to the acts of some is in and of itself, highly ignorant.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Adam

      Actually Steve the Internet was founded in Europe 🙂 FYI

      December 6, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Chris

      Americans are made up of all races. Peace be with you.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Laguna

      American is not a race...

      December 6, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  19. Fearfighter1

    If man has a spirit, how do you put a turban on it? The point being is I would imagine an all powerful being does not require one to conform to clothing for religious purposes. It's what's in a persons heart not what fabrics are clinging to their head or skin.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  20. us1776

    Well at least one of these ancient religions is trying to modernize.

    More than can be said for stupid Islam.


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

      Or Christianity...

      December 6, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Silence, you filthy Jew!

      December 6, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
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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.