April 16, 2010

The turban, which North Americans find confusing and even comical, communicates a great deal about a person from South and Central Asia. The fabric, the length of the turban, its color and the way it is folded all speak volumes about the man wearing it.

The style of a turban depends upon the background of the person wearing it. Muslims of Afghanistan as well as Hindus and Sikhs of rural India wear a kind of quick wrap-around.  In contrast, it can take anywhere between five minutes and two hours to put on an elegant turban, depending on the style. Many stories are told about Guru Gobind Singh who personally tied beautiful dumalas (turbans) on the heads of both his elder sons, armed them and sent them to the battlefield at Chamkaur Sahib where they both died as martyrs.

The turban has been a formal and respectable dress since ancient times. Click to view a painting of Guru Nanak, the Guru who founded the Sikh faith, wearing the turban according to the style of the region he had visited to preach. A saffron-colored turban is especially identified with courage, sacrifice and martyrdom. In the Punjabi culture, those who have served the community are traditionally honored with turbans. In contrast, a black turban can symbolize the struggle over sin, and the blue turban signifies service. Modern Sikhs have their own reasons for choosing one color over another. Why does Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh so often opt for blue turbans? It is the color of Cambridge, his alma mater.

India's Prime Minister meets with a Saudi Prince

“My memories of my days in Cambridge are deep,” the prime minister said after being conferred an honorary doctorate of law by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. “The color blue is one of my favorites and is often seen on my head.” Turban wearers believe that by balancing the chakras of the body, the turban  gives you a cranial self-adjustment for clear thinking and deep thought.

The turban also signifies purity. Sikhs are considered protectors of the weak, even among the non-Sikhs in India. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Sikh warriors were very few in numbers and constantly in battles with the Muslim rulers who had put a prize on their head. If someone could behead a Sikh, he would get 10 Rupees reward which was lot of money in those days. Therefore, the Sikhs moved from village to village at night to hide from the enemy. The women folk let them inside their houses. It was a common saying in Punjab: Aye nihang, booha khol de nishang (“The Sikh soldiers are at the door. Dear woman! Go ahead and open the door without any fear whatsoever.”)

This was in the 18th century. But I had a personal experience in 1992. I was driving my car in New Delhi passing besides Jesus and Mary College for Women in the diplomatic enclave. I saw four young girls, who appeared to be from the same college because they had books in their hands, thumbing me for a lift. I stopped, and they got in. They were my daughter’s age group. I said, “Times are not good. You should be very careful thumbing for a lift.” One of them said, “But you are a Sardar.” (Meaning that there is no need to worry about a turbaned Sikh.)

Here is a variety of wrap-around turbans worn by Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus:

3 styles of turban: Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu

3 styles of turban: (from left) Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu

Sikh pioneer to USA wearing a yellow pleated turban

Sikhs take pride in the evenly spaced pleats,  especially in their peaked turbans.

While the Sikhs wear their turbans to advertise their identity, the Taliban wears all shades of turbans to conceal their identity. And when an American sees a weapon in the hand of a turbaned person, then the stereotyped image of a Muslim terrorist is projected. And if a weapon is not visible, then the same turban wearer could be beaming a disarming smile at you.

Two members of the Afghani or Pakistani Taliban with weapon

Two members of the Afghani or Pakistani Taliban with weapon

Variety of styles and colors of turbans

Here are turbans, of all three religions, with a variety of styles as a feast, I hope, for the eyes of Americans.

Sikh maharajah at left and Hindu maharajah at right

Sikh maharajah at left and Hindu maharajah at right

Turbans as worn by Afghani Taliban, a Sikh soldier in the Canadian military, Iranian Taliban, and a Yemeni Jew.

Afghani Taliban, a Sikh soldier in the Canadian military, Iranian Taliban, and a Yemeni Jew.

(Some photos in this post are compliments of The Seattle Times.)


  1. Peter Brown Says:

    Peter Brown April 29, 2010 at 5:18am
    Helo Tejwant,
    I enjoyed reading the excerpt on the Turban as worn by various peoples of the Asian sub-continent and beyond. I must admit that until I read your article, I had never considered that peoples other than Sikhs wore turbans even though as a kid growing up in Calcutta I was aware of the Kabulis who wore turbans.
    I look foreward to reading some more of your creations and will be happy to proof read them if you so desire.
    Cheers and keep that pen flying,

  2. Anant Kaur Says:

    Very very good article and relevant !

  3. Nancy Says:

    Mr. Singh-

    I am an American. I was at a funeral last evening and noted a gentelman in a turban – not necessarily unusual as there are several hindu in our community. The turban was pink and didn’t coordinate with his other apparel to speak of. We wondred if the color pink was ritualistic in any way or if that was just his color of choice for the event. Thanks for any help you can be.

  4. Hello Nancy,
    Nice to read your comment. I’ll try to answer your questions.
    Americans seem to mistake all Indians as Hindus which is not correct. You will never see a Hindu or Muslim American wearing a turban now -very very rare- particularly after 9/11.
    Therefore, it’s not correct to assume that every man with a turban is a Hindu or a Muslim. Turbans are now worn by Sikhs alone.
    This man at the funeral should not have worn a pink -a bright color. In Punjabi culture, we always dress in sombre colors during mourning. He should have worn a white, black or dark blue turban. Perhaps he did not have one. Not everyone keeps all the colors particularly when out of India. Stores in America don’t stock turbans. In India stores keep most of the common-use shades in fast colors. We also have street level dyers who can do an impromptu job.
    Color is a personal choice. Fashion conscious Sikhs match the color with their shirt or trouser. At weddings the general color is pink or red even among Punjabi Hindus -movies by Producer/Director Gurinder Chaddha show Hindu men wearing pink.
    Rural folks used to prefer white but lately even they have started opting for various colors -prosperity I suppose. Older citizens prefer white as color of seniority and maturity. Sikh Saints always wear white. Sikhs from the business community sometime wear stipe-design turbans. There is a sect among the Sikhs called Namdhari who always wear white in a particular style which looks like a wrap around.
    If one views, from a higher elevation, a large gathering of Sikhs during the spring, it would look like a multitude of flowers. That may be the reason for the gusty culture of Punjab which other Indians are gradually opting for -work hard; eat well; dress well; dance in abandon with loud music; go-and-get the impossible.
    More and more of the younger generation among non-Punjabies in India want a Punjabi-style wedding, otherwise they may throw a tantrum.
    Tejwant Singh

  5. Johnb638 Says:

    Hello! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I really enjoy deeffdafeffk

    • tejwantsingh Says:

      Dear John,
      Thank you for the comment which makes me happy.
      There is much one can do to make this world a happier place to live in.
      Wish you good luck and a happy reading experience.
      I was visiting my two daughters in Boston MA and San Diego CA in April this year and found a lot of change in the approach of people towards a turbaned guy like me. But there were still some who were frowning at me. I suppose it will take some more time to filter out the correct info to them.
      Warm regards,
      Tejwant Singh

  6. Johne260 Says:

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