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But in 2011, he says, a turban feels outdated and not in sync with the Western fashions adopted by Indian men.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

    In March 2011 #White People Stink was trending & whole world was laughing. What was the reason behind that? Here's the top 20 of it ( http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/top-20-things-white-people-smell-like )

    December 7, 2011 at 5:03 am |
  2. Satish arora

    Just because they have no turban or beard , They are no less than any other singh in their heart and mind .And in the same tone Millions of hindus all over the world go to gurudwaras and believe in gurus as much as anybody else .

    December 7, 2011 at 3:47 am |
    • aman

      Sandy the Sardarni & Satish arora
      let me tell you one thing holding a kebab with johny walker got nothing to do with person being religious or not same way holding a apple in your hand will not make you the best religious person in world.

      now about being raised in non-turbaned household and hindu's going to gurdwara sahib does not justify anything but simply it means they are not satisfied in the religion they follow and want to switch over but as sikhi is very difficult to follow most people are not able to follow it.

      and you doing path everyday and do not wear a pagg what sense it makes ... if you follow something follow it completely ... like if you want to reach a destination (your college) and you a straight path you follow that and you reach there fine ... but if one odd day i tell you to go to college using a different totally new path you will for sure will either reach late with difficulty to your destination or will not reach at all.

      same way meeting god is everybody's destination and religion is the path ... if you choose sikhism or hinduism or whatever you want you should follow one and reach the destination safely and easily.

      December 7, 2011 at 5:25 am |
  3. Sandy the Sardarni on Sans Turban

    Let's evolve people.

    Otherwise, you will not address the incredibly dwindling interest in Sikhism that plagues the Sikh youth.
    Let's be inclusive and stop arguing over something a logistical as a turban. Frankly, who hasn't seen a turbaned Sikh who isn't necessarily the best Sikh..... And who hasn't seen a sardar ji with a Johnny black and kebeb in his hand at the last wedding they were at.

    Let's get real. Stop moaning over the color of the walls whe. The roof is going to cave....

    Sikhi was founding on evolving and challenging status quo.... It's time we go back and reevaluate. It's what every major religion does to ensure it's future vitality and strength. Let's not waste and lose our principals over something kin or, when we all know the religion stands for SO much more than just the turban... ( a hard dress which itself has evolved in shape and style since the gurus for turbans sake) not to mention has existed in Indian culture for thousands of years Mong other parts of the world.

    Let's get real.

    I'm a Sardarni raised in a non turbaned household. I go to gurudwara every week, and pray every day. I'm proud of who I am, whether i cover ,y head or not, have a glass of wine or not, or love my kebabs or not. and that, is what is most important.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:36 am |
    • Sandy the Sardarni on Sans Turban

      Pardon the spelling errors, iPads....tough to type 🙂

      December 7, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  4. Harminder Kaur

    Despite seeing d ridiculous comments of this burning world it's cooling n heartening to knw dat thr r spiritually inclined people out there who respect d turban, appreciate it, tie it with love.. as well as respecting Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc. Go Khalsa! 'Beautiful is Your Turban and sweet is your Speech..' (by bhagat Fareed Ji in the present Sikh Guru, Guru Granth Sahib Ji).:-)

    December 7, 2011 at 2:30 am |
  5. Sandy the Sardarni on Sans Turban


    December 7, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  6. Harminder Kaur

    Despite being seeing the retarded comments of this burning world it is cooling and heartening to know that there are spiritually inclined people out there who respect the turban and appreciate it and tie it with love.. as well as respecting nice Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others who are truly inclined towards God. Go Khalsa! ~Beautiful is Your Turban and sweet is your Speech..~ (by bhagat Fareed Ji in the present Sikh Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji).:-)

    December 7, 2011 at 2:07 am |
  7. Sarbjit

    If 5K's so important- why aren't they mentioned in the 1400 page Sri Guru Granth Sahib- our living guru. Maybe they aren't as important as we think.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:05 am |
  8. 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.

    December 7, 2011 at 1:44 am |
    • rsj

      u make good points which are convincing, sound good, and makes u think in the direction of spirituality. But, I would like u to read Guru Granth Sahib Ji and see if you find any mention of turbans, good Sikh wears a turban, Sikhs who don't were a turban r bad. The dialogue within Sikhism is always from ages is about your appearance & turban, vs what is essentially the most important teachings in the Guru Granth Sahib over & over – ego, duality, maya, detachment....., if u sit back and think about this majority of Sikhs, NOT ALL, have the biggest ego, so attached to show off, etc... this punjabi culture is exactly opposite.

      December 10, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  9. a.khan

    I grew Up in Pakistan's City HassanAbdal where the Guru Nanak started his religion and thousands of sikhs visited Punja Sahab every year, I respect the religion and study a lot about that, I believe the five rules of being sikh taught by Guru Nanak was misrepresented,i will write in desi language to get better understanding 1. Apnay bala the hifazat karna , it was represented as make sure you take care of your hairs wrong, it means take care of your kids and generations, But some sikhs just want the resemblance with their guru having beard and turban is good. just like many muslims have beard and cover their head to resemble with prophet Mohammad.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • JJ White

      a.khan your one of the very few people who will actually read the turth about a belief instead of twisting it to make it your belief. I am so glad someone brought forth the truth. Many, many religious leaders from every religion take something written from their "holy book" and twist it to their beliefs and tell their followers that it is that way because I said it is....that is so sad that people put so much faith in a man and his personal beliefs. Interpretation should be left up to the individual, not a religious leader...which means you don't really need religious leaders and places of worship....which is fine, then people won't be fooled into believing someone elses personal beliefs. We are all humans, with individual thoughts and brains...so whats wrong with having your own beliefs...nothing...that what being a FREE HUMAN is all about. So read your religion's holy book if you want, and interpret the way you understand it...then keep that inside yourself...because there no one can pollute it with thier mis- intrepretations.

      December 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  10. JJ White

    If you think about it. ALL religions keep you from being who your are as an individual...they dictate, preach and in some countries force you to believe in what they want you to believe, which takes away your god given right to be an individual. They don't want you to be a "free person" with freedoms of any kind...because that means they cannot control you. We are born different, each and every person on this planet, we all think differently, we all believe in different things...that is what being human is all about. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with people believing in the same things, but it is totally wrong to force someone or to intimidate them to believe in one way that is not theirs. If your not free to believe in what you want, then your a slave to someone elses beliefs! So you have to ask yourself...do you want to be a free human and believe what you want, or be a slave of someone elses beliefs.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • George

      There is a right way to believe and a wrong way. Christian belief is the right way. You are, of course, free to believe any way you want, but don't say that you weren't warned.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  11. Ignorance is bliss

    If you don't like beards, that's your preference. I know a lot of guys who don't find black women attractive. And to some girls I know, black men are scary looking.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  12. Klaark

    If the religious folks would just agree to keep their idiot beliefs to themselves and also stop trying to shoot or blow other people up, we could end most wars.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
    • Scott

      @Ignorance is bliss ...listen Klaark is saying some thing to you..

      December 6, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      If we can try to be more open and sensible about other cultures and beliefs, we can stop a lot ignorance in this world. Why do people always compare religion with something bad that is happening in this world. If a group of people belonging to a certain religion decides to blow something up and then say they did for their religion, doesn't mean they reflect the ideas of that religion or general people's belief.

      I have had people telling me, if I don't believe in Jesus then I'm going to hell. I don't think this idea reflects the general thoughts of most Christians. Try to read more about the subject before posting!

      December 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • fred

      If you are not practicing the simple things Jesus clearly stated you are already in hell. That hell if of your own making.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  13. Ignorance is bliss

    For the people who say that Sikhs should get on with the times and become 'modern', Having a peni$ and brea$ts are such old fashions, why don't you guys cut that too?

    December 6, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • andrea

      @Ignorance is bliss we will cut yours, you sis, mum and wife's 🙂

      December 6, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • Cruz

      that is too funny..i m laughing my A$$ off... 😀

      December 6, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  14. Satwant Kaur

    Yes, some Sikhs struggle with covering their hair, not cutting their hair, and not shaving (applies to both men and women). However, there are many other Sikhs, all around the work including the US, that have no problem doing these things and more like working hard, giving time and money to charity, and praying daily which are the three pillars of Sikh life. The most important thing to being a Sikh, which literally means student, is to continue to learn and grow in your path, which one aspect for Sikh is to keep and cover your hair and others are embracing equality and fighting against injustice.

    December 6, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  15. JJ White

    The world is getting younger...as the old people are slowly dying off. The young see a new world where they can be free to express themselves as individuals...they see the "old ways" and religions as Old Fashion and Out of Date and repressive. Its great to have roots in history of your beliefs...those are written down for history and will never be forgotten. The older folks don't understand that the world is ever changing, which means leaning away from old out dated ways and beliefs and it hurts their pride and self-being....but every religion should promote freedom of religion, which means you can believe in what you want, not what is dictated to you...if you follow one way, then you are NOT an individual. They don't understand that its NOT the outside of an individual that makes him or her a certain religion....that comes from within. Some people just cannot accept change! Let those who want to wear turbins wear them, and those that don't...don't, that doesn't change their beliefs at all.

    December 6, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • ammanjeet kaur

      exuse me but i completely disagree with you @jj white! you should research more about sikhism and the teaching in the SGGS. sikhs is by far the most holiest or holy religions, and that you will understand the day you allow yourself to truly understand the teachings of the sikh gurus. in sikhism you can not choose what you like and keep that and what you don't just discard that. it is an order given by the 10th guru to follow by our religion. it is a sin if you don't. poeple that are born in a sikh family are blessed. those who don't follow the sikh path for there stupid reasons will go to hell and face waheguru on judgment day. i'm quite religious and anyone who disagrees with me can gladly come up and rgue with me, because i will assure you i will prove you wrong in every ways possible. balbir and malkit whose photos are shown on top, that don't have the right to put singh in there names. they have lost the respect and essence of 'singh'. my foot to all the fashion talk. this is the westernization that is corrupting the sikhs. but let me also add the hindu government too. sikhs should be proud to be a sikh and show there punjabi pride.

      December 6, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • Singh

      @amanjeet kaur i don't think sikhism says anyone will go to hell if they don't follow the guru's ways

      December 7, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      ammanjeet.. the fact is you focus more on the symbolism rather than the human and what that human is. You dismiss a fellow human, and country man ,purely on the fact he does not wrap his head..or have face hair..is that the only measure of humanity for you? We see religions destroying lives daily because some ones symbols are not the same. Be an individual and we will all get along.

      December 7, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  16. andrea

    I agree with Cruz

    December 6, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • nnm

      actually i dont agree with the comment about Sikhs being smelly..i have many Sikh guys friends and i have never noticed any unpleasent smells from them....it all comes down to personal hygiene...whether the person is Sikh or not, if he/she does not have good personal hygiene they would be smelly anyway...:P

      December 6, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Scott

      @nnm cuz you are a sikh too 🙂

      December 6, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  17. Cruz

    most sikhs are smelly...long covered hairs are the reason...you like it or not...that is the truth..

    December 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Ignorance is bliss

      You should see some white folks that I see everyday at my work. They literally smell like thrash.
      Sikhism is a way of life. It teaches you to get up early in the morning, take a bath, do your prayers, go to work and just be a good person. Stop judging a whole community based on a couple of people you see. Ignorant Fool!

      December 6, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • underdog

      Whats your problem Cruz? Why would anyone make such a harsh generalization like that? Only an ignorant fool like you has the capacity to be so narrow minded. I know many white people during my college years who never showered or kept clean. Is it right for me to have a mindset that every white person is dirty? No its not. Personal hygiene is exactly what it sounds like. It is personal and stems from the individual. So stop bashing an entire religion. It is clear that you are not a very bright person.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:07 am |
    • Rajinder

      Hey Cruz I dont know what Sikhs you are hanging out with. Majority of the Sikhs the wash their hair and the smell that you are talking about my man Cruz stop eating those beans and rice. We all know who smells the worst. Peace out

      December 7, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  18. Jagmeet Sethi
    December 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  19. Jagmeet Sethi

    Just have to say this to him .... http://a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc6/260574_10150291885477673_48970692672_8917627_2083042_n.jpg

    December 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  20. greg

    Those guys are way hot exactly as they are.

    December 6, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • UrbanDef

      I couldn't agree more...mmm.

      December 7, 2011 at 9:55 am |
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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.