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But in 2011, he says, a turban feels outdated and not in sync with the Western fashions adopted by Indian men.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

    Following statement is a politically motivated invention of modern sikh nationalists – "Sikhism rose up 500 years ago in India as a monotheistic religion that rejected the caste system and scriptures of Hinduism". Sikhism, as founded by Guru Nanak was just one among many hindu reform movements of bhakti period. Far from 'rejecting hindu scriptures', its own book – 'Guru Granth Sahib' – derives heavily from most major hindu books. The Sikh panth (hindi for 'way') grew into a distinct (& militarized) religion when its 10th Guru revolted against the oppressive muslim ruler (Aurangazeb) of India. Currently, caste system among sikhs is way more entrneched than in other hindus, with the dominant Jat-Sikhs opressing low-caste sikhs routinely.

    December 6, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Under which rock have you been living under? Caste System is a sin in Sikhism, if some people choose to follow it that there problem. Sikhism the religion has always denounced the Caste System or any other kind of discrimination whatsoever as it is mention in the holy scriptures.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  2. mm

    I always wonder how their head smells if it gets no air and always tied up in a knot. Just wondering. All that heir in the heat under a turban...Yuk!

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

      hair can be washed... and so can a turban. It's not gross at all.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  3. ItsAllAConPeople

    Religions are so primitive. All the odd rules of dress and behavior to make each group of adherents seem special...so silly.

    December 6, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  4. andrea

    Geez, I apologize to them, but I am 56 and these guys are really, really cute!

    December 6, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Shestar5

      I was thinking the same thing!

      December 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  5. Anil Singh

    To RSJ
    I am Hindu.
    Completely agree with your views. I have two questions. Just curious.
    Does Sikh releigion forbid tea, coffee and meat ?

    December 6, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • RSJ

      Never read that in Guru Granth Sahib, my point about tea & coffee was related to mind altering consumption which could be any chemicals. Turbon for some reason is more important to being a Sikh vs consuming liquids, ....... Majority of Turboned Sikhs the so called Khalsa have big egos, attachments and do not practice gender equality.

      December 7, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  6. RSJ

    I think you have a point, but my Nanak teaches me – I was born in a sikh family, I would like to say to a human family. I am a follower of Guru Nanak Dev ji, his teachings and way of life and a follower of Guru Granth Sahib. Maybe someone can educate me or someday I will find out why so much emphasis is always placed by our current religious leaders on how you look is considered a better sikh vs the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji/Guru Granth Sahib/Kabir ji – stayaway from Maya, ego, detachment, but you have to still fulfill your worldly responsibilities (Guru Granth Sahib/Guru Nanak/Kabir ji all their teachings are great, in order for this religion to grow you would think the so called sikh leaders would preach this vs someone's appearance). Again someone can explain this to me, a person with turban and beard who has a appearance of a Sikh/Khalsa is still considered a better Sikh although the turbaned Sikh drinks tea/coffee/alcohol(all our drugs and have a intoxication effect), eats meat (have not found or understood by me yet in Guru Granth Sahib), has a huge ego, is attached to worldly possessions, etc... vs a non turbaned person who follows Nanak's & Guru Granth Sahib's teachings of seva, no ego, detachment, etc.... Let me be upfront I am still trying to follow Nanak & Guru Granth Sahib and still very far from it – where in Nanak's or Guru Granth Sahib teachings there is a mention of the word sikh, vahaguru, kahlsa, having a beard/turban etc.... still searching and reading many times over. I always have believed that Guru Gobind said from now Guru Granth Sahib ji is the GURU.... so were did we followers of Nanak go stray............... and this beautiful way of life did not grow like weeds. If anyone out there thinks that I have lost my path based on Nanak/Guru Granth Sahib's teachings please post a blog here I will try and learn from you and also is anything else thinks I make any sense please forward my message. I am very appreciative to both audiences or in the other words both side of the isles turbaned or non turbaned followers of NANAK/GURU GRANTH SAHIB JI.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • turbanlover

      You should go to http://www.sikhitothemax.com and go to gurbani search and in the english box search the word Khalsa, hair, turban.. and the related gurbani lines will come up...there's a lot of them. It's all in the SGGS. And you can't just be a Sikh of only 1 Guru. All the Gurus shared the same light inside of them and all together make up the Sikh religion. When you bow down to SGGS you are bowing to all of the Gurus .. and the act of bowing means that you have accepted everything they have written... like keeping your hair. Of course there are people out there who keep tie turbans and drink but there's more that don't.. that's just the Punjabi culture intertwined with the Sikh religion. But the fact is both are completely different. Just remember that.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  7. Ginamero

    I dislike their quest for special treatment. Muslim women want to wear their jihab in DL pics and these guys want to wear their turbans in photo ID for their DL...and not to get searched at airports...what's keeping a muslim from wrapping up and pretending to be Sikh to get past security because these folks think they are special? In England they get a pass on having to wear a helmet. How on Earth do they get to break the law or get a special law just for them? Laws are meant to be applied equally to all. They are not special because they wish to look grubby. I'm glad I don't have to dress the way women did 1000 years or 100 years ago just to prove my love to God. Craziness.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  8. Bregginkrak

    My guru told me that there are 3 symbols of my faith. There is the cold beer which contains all the elements and thus connects one to many. There is red meat that brings strength. There is the smooth face and well mannered hair that attracts the honeymakers.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      Whatever your 'guru' told you must have led Jesus in hell. He had long hair and a long beard and as far as I know he didn't get any 'honeys' Ignorant troll!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • underdog

      u are an ignorant fool....

      December 7, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  9. A_Singh

    Of course "religion" is not a popular things nowadays, so that would explain the majority of the comments here. It's not easy being in the "minority" The same way people say "don't judge people who don't follow religion" i say "don't just people who choose to follow religion"

    We keep our turbans and uncut hair because we are trying to be better spiritual people and it doesn't matter if you think its "yucky," its our devotion to the divine.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  10. Bla

    You want to know God? Religion will only get in the way.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  11. Blessed Geek

    This is not new. This turban – modernization issue had been raging 40 years ago. There's a cycle in Sikhism. Modernise, then traditional, then .... Wait another 15 years, every sikh would want to put on a turban again.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  12. Sikh Guy

    What's the difference between SIKH and SINGH?

    December 6, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Mademoiselle Swann

      A Sikh is a person who adheres to the Sikh religion. Just like calling someone "a Catholic," etc... "Singh" happens to an extremely common last name among Sikhs, like "Kim" among Koreans. I am not such an expert that I can say that all Sikhs are named Singh, but at any rate, this is the difference. 😉

      December 6, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Badmash Kaur

      Singh is also a middle name adopted by many Sikhs meaning "Lion". Women take the middle name "Kaur". You do see Singh as a last name commonly, but very many Sikhs use it as a middle name as well. By all the women taking the same name and all the men, it was a way to create equality between them all. Castes are recognizable by Hindu last names, but if every Sikh has the same name, they are all equal sisters and brothers.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • vs101

      Singh is a word that means Lion and has been used as part of a man's name for centuries by various Hindu communities in India, especially by those belonging to the Kshatrya (warrior) caste. The 10th (and last) Guru "leader" of the Sikhs further formalized the religion and gave it a martial status. As part of his directive, he asked that all male Sikhs to add the Singh to their name. It is generally used as a middle name.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  13. hal9thou

    Religion destroys.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Sikh of It

      A men to that.

      December 6, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • cwestions

      Atheism is a belief system as well, you know...

      December 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Genres

      Sikhism is unlike any other religion. It is a way of life that acknowledges every other religion or non believers, stating that everyone is equal.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • elnyka

      Mother Theresa.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • LinCA

      @cwestions

      You said, "Atheism is a belief system as well, you know..."
      Wrong. Atheism is the absence of belief.

      Without evidence for the existence of gods, it is not reasonable to believe they exist. Gods are no different from other figments of imagination. They are equally likely to exist as The Abominable Snowman, Santa Claus, Loch Ness Monster, Pink Unicorns and Bob the Magical Blue Sock, among millions of other imaginary creatures.

      Assigning traits like omnipotence and omniscience to these imaginary friends is irrational.

      All beliefs in gods are unreasonable and all religions are irrational.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      NO... YOUR religion destroys! Speak for yourself!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  14. sharon Johnson

    I think it is not what you wear on your head or how long your hair is,etc; as much as it is what is in your heart. Your heart felt relationship with your creator is all that really matters. Love & faith, kindness & empathy.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Amen to that...and good looks is a plus!

      December 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Prince Arora

      Well said

      December 6, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Aj

      I agree with you 100%.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Jackie

      I totally agree with the statement that "women don't like turbans". Not only that, but beards are disgusting too. So if you see a young Sikh with the turban and a beard, it is a double yuck. If I had the power, I would ban all organized religion, and definitely all outward signs of religion, in dress or hair or whatever. Too many wars are fought and far too many people are slaughtered because their religion doesn't sit well with someone else's religion.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      @Jackey, Jesus must be ugly!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  15. wisdom4u2

    I keep coming back looking at these fine young men....they are fine as wine!!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • shweeetheart

      You got that right!!

      December 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • shweeetheart

      Long hair and a turban....they would be even yummier......

      December 6, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Ginamero

      These guys are hot...but put 5 feet of hair on them and a yards of material around their heads and it's a no brainer...not attractive at all. Most of the Indian women I work with are fashionable...I would not want an Indian doctor or waiter with all that nasty unkempt hair. If it's well groomed that's one thing but hair that's running wild is not attractive or a man or a woman at the beach...lol

      December 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  16. Sikh of It

    I was born into a Sikh family, but abandoned the religion as quickly as I abandoned unicorns, trolls, elves, and fairies. Although the original intent of each religion (usually) is good, the standards and silly rules which they pull out of thin air have cast a bad light on each and every one of them. For example, on a recent trip to India, I was told to leave a Sikh temple because I had covered my head with a blank, black baseball cap. I happily left, since I wasn't there on my own regard in the first place. To be removed from the "house of god" which once stood as an all welcoming to all people icon, is comedic.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • hal9thou

      Amen, brother.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • lakha

      typical white wash who doesn't understand his culture or its values...as hard you try to to be a westerner, too bad you can't change your skin colour...

      December 6, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • Jackie

      Too true!

      December 6, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Jackie

      My "too true" statement was to agree with Sikh of It – not the reply immediately above mine, which I certainly do not agree with.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      If you are admitted in a private High School, you will get in trouble if you don't wear a proper uniform. Don't worry, you'll learn!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      In my house I make the rules. If I say you can't wear shoes in my bedroom and you don't like it, too bad for you!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  17. M.Singh

    Singh aka Khalsa, means PURE, so as per our Guru's and our Holy Book. If you belong to the Sikh religion, you suppose to stay the way God/nature/superpower made you or sent you on earth/life. It's very simple logic in this/my religion, there gota be a reason why men have beard and womens don't.That's how the Nature/God wants you to be. Long story short is stay PURE (if you wanna call yourself a SIKH). And to cover long hair's in 16th century, that's what they come up with "Turban". If somebody don't wanna follow that rule IT'S Ok, but don't make that as a excuse. and another thing I wanna mention is, there is only two KIND's, Beliver or non-believer. In any religion if you "question" or disagree with something in your Holy Book or teachings, that simply means you are not a Believer. So just forget it, just BE whatever you wanna BE. You don't have to give excuses.
    GOD BLESS YOU

    December 6, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • dike

      I am curious about the hygiene part if you dont cut hair anywhere, like it is supposed to be.... man I cant imagine.... yikes

      December 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • RSJ

      I hope you are correct and I am still learning – I was born in a sikh family, I would like to say to a human family. I am a follower of Guru Nanak Dev ji, his teachings and way of life and a follower of Guru Granth Sahib. Maybe someone can educate me or someday I will find out why so much emphasis is always placed by our current religious leaders on how you look is considered a better sikh vs the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji/Guru Granth Sahib/Kabir ji – stayaway from Maya, ego, detachment, but you have to still fulfill your worldly responsibilities (Guru Granth Sahib/Guru Nanak/Kabir ji all their teachings are great, in order for this religion to grow you would think the so called sikh leaders would preach this vs someone's appearance). Again someone can explain this to me, a person with turban and beard who has a appearance of a Sikh/Khalsa is still considered a better Sikh although the turbaned Sikh drinks tea/coffee/alcohol(all our drugs and have a intoxication effect), eats meat (have not found or understood by me yet in Guru Granth Sahib), has a huge ego, is attached to worldly possessions, etc... vs a non turbaned person who follows Nanak's & Guru Granth Sahib's teachings of seva, no ego, detachment, etc.... Let me be upfront I am still trying to follow Nanak & Guru Granth Sahib and still very far from it – where in Nanak's or Guru Granth Sahib teachings there is a mention of the word sikh, vahaguru, kahlsa, having a beard/turban etc.... still searching and reading many times over. I always have believed that Guru Gobind said from now Guru Granth Sahib ji is the GURU.... so were did we followers of Nanak go stray............... and this beautiful way of life did not grow like weeds. If anyone out there thinks that I have lost my path based on Nanak/Guru Granth Sahib's teachings please post a blog here I will try and learn from you and also is anything else thinks I make any sense please forward my message. I am very appreciative to both audiences or in the other words both side of the isles turbaned or non turbaned followers of NANAK/GURU GRANTH SAHIB JI.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  18. wisdom4u2

    So that's were all the good looking guys are....yummy!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      that would be *where* ha

      December 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  19. Ryan

    Sadhu Sunder Singh was a great Christian!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  20. Singhji

    Here is a link for those who need a quick lesson in Sikh histrory from a 7 year old Sikh kid:
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89xjw_tDoCY&w=640&h=360]

    Respect all faiths and respect all humans. If you want to be a part of a faith then follow it. As some one said above-- Regular Vs. Premium. History has shown the value imbibed from ones faith that makes you better and focused. It's a choice....be a part of the faith or move out.....if you leave then don't call your self a Sikh and disrepect the faith.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • RSJ

      I think you have a point, but my Nanak teaches me – I was born in a sikh family, I would like to say to a human family. I am a follower of Guru Nanak Dev ji, his teachings and way of life and a follower of Guru Granth Sahib. Maybe someone can educate me or someday I will find out why so much emphasis is always placed by our current religious leaders on how you look is considered a better sikh vs the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji/Guru Granth Sahib/Kabir ji – stayaway from Maya, ego, detachment, but you have to still fulfill your worldly responsibilities (Guru Granth Sahib/Guru Nanak/Kabir ji all their teachings are great, in order for this religion to grow you would think the so called sikh leaders would preach this vs someone's appearance). Again someone can explain this to me, a person with turban and beard who has a appearance of a Sikh/Khalsa is still considered a better Sikh although the turbaned Sikh drinks tea/coffee/alcohol(all our drugs and have a intoxication effect), eats meat (have not found or understood by me yet in Guru Granth Sahib), has a huge ego, is attached to worldly possessions, etc... vs a non turbaned person who follows Nanak's & Guru Granth Sahib's teachings of seva, no ego, detachment, etc.... Let me be upfront I am still trying to follow Nanak & Guru Granth Sahib and still very far from it – where in Nanak's or Guru Granth Sahib teachings there is a mention of the word sikh, vahaguru, kahlsa, having a beard/turban etc.... still searching and reading many times over. I always have believed that Guru Gobind said from now Guru Granth Sahib ji is the GURU.... so were did we followers of Nanak go stray............... and this beautiful way of life did not grow like weeds. If anyone out there thinks that I have lost my path based on Nanak/Guru Granth Sahib's teachings please post a blog here I will try and learn from you and also is anything else thinks I make any sense please forward my message. I am very appreciative to both audiences or in the other words both side of the isles turbaned or non turbaned followers of NANAK/GURU GRANTH SAHIB JI.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
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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.