MY TURBAN: 11 things you wanted to know about my turban but were too afraid to ask

Turbans are a source of mystery — and all too often, terrible misunderstanding — to those who don’t wear them. What do they mean? Why do you wear them? Do you have to do everything in a turban? Well, we’re never shy about asking questions at Mash-Up HQ. And it turns out, when you ask with genuine curiosity and love, people are happy to answer. Enter Rupinder Singh, founder of American Turban, social justice fellow at the Sikh Coalition, and owner of more than 20 turbans. Ever wanted to know how long it takes to tie a turban? Read on, playas. Pro tip: the word Sikh means “student” and rhymes with “Sith,” not “seek.” Learning every day.

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Rupinder Singh | Opinion | 15 March 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Rupinder SIngh sporting one of his many pink turbans.
Rupinder SIngh sporting one of his many pink turbans.

A typical conversation about my turban goes something like this:

The TSA, as I go through security at the airport: “I need to inspect your, uh, headgear. I mean, your headwear. You know, that wrap on your head.”

Me: “You mean … my turban?”

“Turban” is not a dirty word. And hopefully mine, to the TSA agent awkwardly sniffing it, smells springtime fresh.

As a follower of the Sikh faith I am, by design, recognized by my turban and my uncut hair. Sikhism is a religion of about 25 million people around the world. It’s the fifth largest world religion by population. Most of the religion’s followers are in India, but there are about 500,000 Sikhs in the United States. That’s a lot of turbans! And this simple item is the subject of a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings. So here are answers to the 10 questions I just know you want to ask about my turban, but were too afraid to ask.

 

1. Why do you wear a turban?

While the turban is a common and fashionable item of clothing for many cultures, for Sikhs, it represents our faith. When the Sikh faith was developing from the 15th through 18th centuries in South Asia, the turban was worn only by the higher classes and elites of society. However, a core teaching of the Sikh faith was that all people are equal — there are no high or low among us. As such, it was mandated that all Sikhs initiated into the faith cover our heads with a turban, thereby signifying the equal status among the faith’s followers. Because it’s considered respectful for Sikhs to keep our heads covered when in public and in our religious spaces, the turban provides that function as well. It is a core piece of my identity.

Another identifying article of faith for Sikhs is maintaining uncut hair by both women and men. Sikhs are not to cut hair from any part of our bodies, which is why as a Sikh man I have a long beard and long hair. This is an expression of our acceptance God’s will. My turban becomes the covering for my long hair that I keep in a bun at the top of my head. You see, we were way ahead of the hipster man-bun curve.

2. Do women wear turbans, too?

Among Sikhs, the turban has traditionally been worn by men, while women cover their heads with a long scarf called a chunni or dupatta. However, many Sikh women have adopted the turban as their head covering as well.

3. But I have a friend who is a Sikh and doesn’t wear a turban. Why not?

Like any group, there is a range of practice. Many followers of the faith don’t wear turbans or keep their hair, but still legitimately follow and identify with the faith.

4. Do the colors of the turban mean anything?

There aren’t any religious meanings associated with a given turban color. A person can wear any color turban they like — and even prints! Some colors like orange, blue, and white are traditionally worn during religious celebrations or occasions. Red is traditionally worn during Sikh weddings.

One of my main decision points during my morning routine is to determine what color turban I’m going to wear, and how that will coordinate with my shirt, pants, jacket and shoes. I have more than 20 different turbans, each a different color. I’m particularly proud of the four shades of pink that are quick to brighten up a gloomy day for my coworkers. My color choice is a complicated algorithm that usually results in the wrong choice, but luckily, you all don’t notice or you don’t want to hurt my feelings by pointing it out, bless your hearts.

5. Does it go on like a hat?

The turban isn’t a hat per se, and we don’t wear it like a hat. The Sikh turban is a long piece of cotton, typically up to six yards long and one to two yards wide. Your mileage may vary. Mine sure does.

I tend to wear shorter, narrower lengths of fabric, which I re-tie every day. To put it on, I fold the cloth several times (a process called making the pooni) into a single layer that I then wrap concentrically around my head in four layers (or a larh), but more often Sikhs wrap turbans around five or more times. It takes me a precious five or so minutes to tie my turban — precious because I usually run late to wherever I’m going. You can watch a similar process (at your own risk) here.

6. How many kinds of turbans are there?

There are several different general styles of turbans that people wear, and within each style there’s a lot of leeway according to their person’s preferences. A dumalla is a larger, rounder turban. There is a smaller round turban tied by some Sikh men. Sikh women who tie turbans tend to wear round ones as well. A parna is a smaller round turban often tied using a thicker printed/checkered cloth.

I tend to tie what’s most commonly referred to as the paghri or pagh, which is more angular in shape (like this one or this one). Within this style, there are regional differences — British Sikhs and African Sikhs tend to wear smaller, sharper turbans (using starched cloth) compared to North American Sikhs, whose turbans are generally softer. Indian Sikhs will often tie larger turbans. Apparently, size matters.

7. Where do you get your turbans?

I typically get my turbans from South Asian fabric shops, online turban retailers, or at Sikh festivals. The cost can vary ranging anywhere from $3 to $10 a yard depending on the where I buy from, the type of cotton blend, and any print or design. As for care, many people will hand wash their turbans, though I put mine in the washing machine set on the delicate cycle and hang to dry.

8. Were you born with a turban on?

No, and my mom couldn’t be happier about that.

When I was a kid and my hair got long enough, my mother would tie on me (until I could) what is known as a patka — basically, a rectangular cloth tied around my head like a bandana that covered my bun of hair. Most boys will wear a patka until they learn how to tie the full turban, and many will instead have a handkerchief just covering their hair bun on the top of their heads. Young boys will wear a patka or a handkerchief since they’re easy to tie and can stand up to some roughhousing. Sikh men will also often wear a patka when playing sports.

There’s actually a ceremony in which we celebrate when a child ties their first full turban. We call the ceremony dastaar bandi (meaning “turban tying,” coincidentally enough). It’s often characterized as a “coming of age” ceremony, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. I had my ceremony when I was maybe four years old — I was an overachiever back then — but I didn’t start tying my full turban until I reached high school 12 years later.

9. Do you wear it to sleep or shower?

Nope. Sikhs are supposed to keep their heads covered when in public. Accordingly, I don’t wear mine when I sleep and not in the shower, especially since it’s not waterproof.

Actually, flowing water can be fatal to a tied turban. We can be rather hydrophobic when it rains. I will say, however, that my turban does make for a convenient pillow during air travel.

10. Can I touch your turban?

Well, I’m glad you asked. I don’t know — can you?

Personally, it’s a bit of a sensitive topic. Like many Sikh children, I was bullied quite a bit in school, and my patka was the target of my harassers. Bullies would try to pull it off, or just try to mess with it. This was obviously very humiliating to me as a boy, given the sacred nature of our turbans.

As an adult, I still get asked this from time to time. Because the turban is a religious article of faith, it’s held in sacred esteem by Sikhs. It’s offensive if our turbans are touched or handled without our permission while we’re wearing them. But, if the person asking is respectful and genuine, then I’ll let someone touch it so they can get a sense of it. Play your cards right and I can even tie one on you. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean we have to get engaged or anything.

11. And oh yeah, the heat thing.

You would think that tying layers of cloth on your head would be uncomfortable on a hot day, but actually, the turban is a common article of clothing in hot climates. It protects the wearer from exposure and the sun’s rays. So, while it can feel hot wearing a turban, it’s because it is hot.

The original article, entitled 11 Things You Wanted to Know About My Turban But Were Too Afraid to Ask, appeared here.

 

Rupinder Singh serves as a Social Justice Fellow at The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organisation in the United States. He was born in India, raised in Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles. You can follow him at @americanturban.

 

[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]

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3 COMMENTS

  1. 8. Were you born with a turban on?
    * All are borne naked and without any covering of any sort for any part of the body.
    Further comments:
    * HUMAN SPECIES ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO COVER THEMSELVES – Could the reason be that the Human is the only species that is ASHAMED IS OF ITS OWN BODY.
    However to-day there are three types: One which covers totally [for religious/modesty reasons?],
    the second which exposes substantially [fashion-high society-celebrities with some wearing torn cloths in the name of fashion] and the third who dress moderately.
    In the rural areas the men are generally dress from waist downwards but the women cover the whole body whereas in the high society the men over dress whereas the women over expose their ‘assets’. Mallika Sherawat the Bollywood actress said that she shows her ‘assets’ because she has them while others are jealous because they do not have any such ‘assets’].
    Most women and now days men, are convinced that the ALMIGHTY did not have any fashion sense and they want to improve on it by spending billions annually on cosmetics to become fair [White is Right], changing their hair color and the lengths, body shapes and what else is the current demand. All this has created multi-billion Ringgit industries.
    It is common for Asian women to try to be fairer than they are, thinner than they are, change hair color to that of the Western women when it is rare for Western women to change their hair color to black which is the common God given color for Asian women.
    Above are observations and views with no malice intended. TO EACH HIS/HER OWN AS BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER AND THE PERSONS OWN PERCEPTION.

  2. Gursharan Singh-ji’s comment at the end of the article, specifically with regard to number 8 (‘Were you born with a turban on?’) is very enlightening! Lol! ?

  3. Thank you for providing comprehensive answers. However I would like to add my views are listed below against some of the questions.

    1. Why do you wear a turban?
    * Another reason for the turban could be that it makes a person stand out even he is only one in a crowd of one lake [100,000].
    3. But I have a friend who is a Sikh and doesn’t wear a turban. Why not?
    * The late Kathakar gave his view that those who do not wear a turban they probably do not want to be identified as Tenth Guru Ji’s Sikhs especially when they visit undesirable places which a Sikh should not visit or mix with those where the morals may not be as intended by the teachings. Some Sikhs have also given the reason that it is not ‘fashionable’ or an impediment to career prospects or it is not convenient especially when they indulge in water sports or live in cold climate countries.
    5. Does it go on like a hat?
    * A starched turban can be used as a hat as is may not need to be tied every time it is removed and reused. But in my case a starched turban is not suitable due to the shape of my skull which makes a starched turban not usable after each use.
    8. Were you born with a turban on?
    * All are borne naked and without any covering of any sort for any part of the body.
    9. Do you wear it to sleep or shower?
    * The answer is no and no one ever wears any head gear when sleep or shower. Some ladies do wear clothes when they take their bath in swimming pools/rivers/beaches/etc. And some may wear caps if they want to keep their hair dry while in water.
    10. Can I touch your turban?
    * Can but with respect and not to insult the turban or the wearer.
    11. And oh yeah, the heat thing.
    * The turban keeps the head cool in hot weather and warm in cold climates.
    FINALLY THE TURBAN WAS THE ORIGINAL SAFETY GEAR AND IT IS FOR THIS REASON THAT IT HAS BEEN
    RECOGNIZED BY LAW IN MANY COUNTRIES AS SAFETY HALMET AND THUS SIKHS WITH PROPER TURBANS ARE EXEMPTED FROM THE MANDATORY USE OF SAFETY HALMETS ON PUBLIC ROADS.
    [A proper turban is as explained 5-6 yards long to be classified as a head gear which will give exemption from ‘safety halmet’ laws. Some Sikh ladies with dupattas/chunnies or Muslims with ‘serban’ [which is also a piece of cloth about 2-3 yards long] have tried to get exemption but this has been rejected by the Authorities of several countries.

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