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Dastaar Bhandhi: The Why And The Wherefore (from Sikh Chic)


Sep 24, 2004
Dastaar Bandhi: The Why & The Wherefore


Just days ago, a Sikh of my acquaintance went through the rite of "Dastaar Bandhi" wherein a young Sikh lad dons a turban for the first time. We know, as do many of our neighbors, that a turban commonly defines a Sikh male.

The event was held in the local gurdwara and in the congregation (sangat) were many non-Sikh friends and neighbors of the 16 year old Hartaig Singh. In the gurdwara, they were obviously on unfamiliar territory; it fell on me to put the rite in some context by providing information that might be helpful.

The name "Hartaig," caught my attention; literally, as the sword of God that cleaves ignorance from knowledge, justice from injustice, as in one line from many in gurbani, "Gur gyan kharag lae maaray" [GGS:983]. One finds similar references to the sword of divine knowledge in, for example, both the Old and New Testaments.

First there was the completion of a sequential reading by the family of the entire Guru Granth - its 1430 pages. That is the core of most Sikh religious observances anywhere and anytime.

Then we all enjoyed the singing of the liturgy by professional minstrels - the last hymn by Hartaig's sister, Sahiba Kaur, a remarkably accomplished vocalist absolutely at home with the intricacies of a parhtaal.

My brief explanation came between Sahiba's melodious rendering and the ceremonial tying of the turban.

Hartaig had identified his favorite uncle, Anoop Singh, and his style of turban. So it was Anoop Singh who tied the first turban on Hartaig's head.

It was very special day for Hartaig Singh: a young lad who was now joining the ranks of young men.

All over the world and throughout time and history, people - including the most primitive and tribal - from the Native Americans (and they are not primitive) to those who assuredly see themselves as uniquely suited to the times today - recognize the significance when a child is no longer that but surely on his or her path to adult responsibility. So, such celebrations of coming of age are common to all communities and societies -- religious or non-religious.

Now his friends and family were taking note and celebrating Hartaig's transformation through tying a turban on his head. This head covering speaks of many a milestone in the journey of a Sikh and Hartaig's connection to an old tradition in the culture of the subcontinent, but with a uniquely singular and profound meaning in Sikh practice that was bestowed to us a little over 300 years ago.

Head coverings are not unique to Sikhs. Keep in mind that Judaism and Christianity, two rich and historically connected traditions, value head coverings though they differ on its meaning.

Present day Christianity asks that men, in order to show respect to God, remove their head coverings, while their women have historically worn some head coverings, including a veil - directed to similar reverence. Even today, the Bishop's and Cardinal's miter is a reminder of head coverings, as is the nun's habit.

On the Internet one can view and explore turbans in their many styles in different cultures through history. I look at the conventional style of turbans worn by Sikhs worldwide. There are few, only minor variations on the theme - the style in East Africa is somewhat different but only minimally so.

The Sikh turban is radically different from the turban that you see in Islamic culture, although during these days of heightened tension, the average American remains largely clueless about the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim follower of Osama bin Ladin. In fact, very few Muslims wear a turban and it is of a very different style from that worn by Sikhs. The Muslim turban, rare as it is, is mostly ceremonial and usually wrapped over a kulla, or skullcap. It would be good to remember that not even one of the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 wore one; in that context, a turban is perhaps worn only by Osama bin Laden himself and his chief deputy - Zwahiri.

But I refer here to the urbanized Sikh turban. In the villages, Sikhs wear a more informal, rounder turban. These days I see some urbanized young people also wearing it, more so in North America than in India.

The style of the Sikh turban has perhaps changed some over time. This is obvious from a perusal of old paintings and photographs of Sikhs in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also clear that in those times as now, Sikhs always wrapped their turbans; they certainly did not prefer a pre-formed turban and never a hat. (These two variations seem to be making significant inroads in our practice these days.)

In the Indian and the Middle-Eastern cultures, history tells us, for a man of substance a turban was a necessary accoutrement to his clothes.

Hindus, too, used to value a turban, but not anymore. The irony is that even now in the 21st century, at least when they are getting married, most high-caste Hindu males also don a turban, even if only for an hour; and then perhaps again at their death one is put on their heads. In their daily lives, one would hardly ever see a turban on a Hindu head, most would not have one in their wardrobe. They gave up that privilege and right during the Islamic domination of India and later when they came to ape the Western model of a male.

Yet, the people of Punjab have always treasured a turban and the men have always flaunted the wild colors that mark Punjabi festivals.

The turban became a fundamental historical marker in Sikh heritage when in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh declared the long unshorn hair (Kesh) an article of faith. History tells us of the many, many Sikhs who have fought and died for their right to wear one.

Now a turban means the "coming of age" for a young Sikh. I look at it as the uniform of a Sikh.

We know that uniforms carry a message. A uniformed soldier, we know, has taken an oath to risk his or her own life in our service.

I am not naïve. I know that soldiers can turn bad and plunder instead of protecting us. They can break the law, erasing the line between the police and criminals. When convicted of behavior unbecoming the oath and uniform, society demands that he surrender his gun, badge and uniform; from them emerge his power and authority.

The son and daughter of a police officer or soldier in the army are not automatically entitled to their own uniform, badge and gun just because their parent had one. The uniform is not inherited; it must be earned. There are requirements, qualifications and intensive training.

A uniform makes a statement that is both strong and eloquent. We instinctively and intuitively draw conclusions; our expectations of that person stem from such inferences. I can safely assume that someone with a stethoscope is a health professional, just as I presume that a person in a certain sort of uniform and wearing a badge is a police officer. Rarely would there be any need to question the credentials of someone in the uniform of his or her profession.

Similarly, a man with a collar is a priest and a woman wearing a habit is a nun. This was the intention when Pope Gregory mandated a uniform for the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. He was creating an "Army of Christ" in service to the church.

No matter what the mission or occupation, a uniform proclaims the specialized training, discipline and dedication of a professional.

For a Sikh the turban is a similar marker of his faith and its discipline. But this army of God (that is how I view the meaning of Khalsa) was not created to wage aggressive war, conquer territory or subjugate others, but with a single mission - to discipline the mind. The battlefield of the mind was its domain, and Guru Gobind Singh recommended that his Khalsa engage in this battle every day.

Being or becoming a soldier, like signing up for a cause, is not a hereditary vocation or avocation. Each individual must take his or her own risks and earn his or her own stripes. It is not a business that a parent may leave to a child. The emphasis, then, rightly shifts from being a Sikh to becoming one.

What is my expectation when I see a Sikh in uniform? Indeed, it should be no different from what I expect when I see another professional in uniform. Even though I am prepared for occasional disappointment, from a professional person in uniform I expect training, discipline, dedication, honesty and integrity to his or her cause. Out of uniform, a professional is neither held to the same standards nor accorded the same consideration or deference.

I hasten to add that a professional's training doesn't end with a person's investiture. Continuing education is a lifelong process and a never-ending requirement. In this matter my views of a police officer, scholar, scientist, banker, baker or Sikh are the same.

What does a Sikh's uniform proclaim to the world? Is his word his bond? Is he the man who has taken an oath that attaches him to the Guru's Word and who strives mightily to live by it?

The word "Sikh" derivatively means a student. Hence, Sikhs by definition are lifelong students of the Sikh way of life.

One way then is to look at the turban is as a crown on a Sikh's head. History teaches us that Sikhs would rather lose a head than part with the turban and the unshorn hair (kesh) under it.

From that viewpoint, then, it is not a mere cultural eccentricity but the cornerstone of a Sikh's existence, essential to the very definition of self.

Donning a turban for the first time then is no longer an ordinary event but a rite of passage.

The fact that a turban historically belongs on a Sikh head was not easily acknowledged worldwide; many battles still remain.
Many countries of the world - Britain, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Pakistan and many more - recognize the right of Sikhs to serve in the armed forces with their unshorn hair intact and covered by a turban.

The American armed services still remain a bastion of intransigence even though they allow turbaned, long-haired Sikhs to serve on an individual basis via special dispensation. After years of stonewalling, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came around in 1995; recognizable Sikhs now serve in it. In California and Washington, D.C., the police have publicly announced their willingness to recruit turbaned Sikhs.

Perhaps a state-by-state campaign to admit Sikhs into the police and army lies ahead. Our battle in France to freely wear a turban in public space continues today.

I believe the logic of the Sikh stance on turbans is unassailable and progress inevitable.

So now it is a rite of passage for a Sikh. A milestone in one's journey through life.

I look at history and I see that for Christians the comparable rites of passage vary because of the many sects and denominations; the age at Confirmation, too, varies - anywhere from 8 or 9 years and upwards. In the Jews it is Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bas (or Bat) Mitzvah for girls.

Guys, please take note! The Jews understand that girls mature earlier, hence the Mitzvah comes a year earlier at age 12 for girls and at age 13 for boys.

The novitiate who is the honoree on that day reads from the Torah - and that is a meaningful display of coming of age.

This reminds me that not so many years ago, it was common for Sikh families to take note of a child's maturity by a rite aptly named "Guru Charnee Lagna." Literally, it means attaching the novitiate to the Guru's feet but I would translate it as connecting the child with the Guru's message. And the novitiate would then demonstrate his/her willingness, ability and proficiency by reading a hymn or two directly from the Guru Granth.

To me this becomes a most meaningful rite: it is equally open to both boys and girls; it clearly impresses the novitiate with the idea that Sikhi lies in connecting with the message; and finally demonstrates the meaningful commitment of both the novitiate and the family. Certainly, it takes more than a few hours and a wild bash to learn, communicate and read even a few lines of gurbani. And the expression "charni lagna" speaks clearly of the mindset and the approach necessary in a process that is totally free of any gender bias.

This last point is important. I wish to take note of this one critically important detail. We now have Dastaar Bandhi - or donning a turban - for boys but we have not evolved a similarly meaningful rite for a Sikh girl to mark her maturity. It is time we did. In fact we have written women out of our history and ignored their primary role in the preservation and transmission of our heritage.

This is a matter that deserves serious note - and now. I add that men, but more particularly women, need to weigh in on this.

In the past three decades or so, as equal partners in the experience of being Sikh, many young women in North America have also opted to wear a turban or keski - Cynthia Mahmood and Stacy Brady have documented this trend with remarkable sensitivity in a recent monograph.

Notably, the women converts to Sikhism that I have seen over the past 50 years in this country - all seem to wear turbans or dastaars.

Clearly, Hartaig, his parents Simran and Mankanwal, and his grandparents on both sides can be justifiably proud. To Hartaig Singh I say: Welcome to living history.



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Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
I have often heard of the rite of Guru Charnee Lagna but did not fully understand it as it seems to have lost its original meaning. Many people in India use it as an excuse for not reading from the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (as they say they have not undergone this formal ceremony). There should not be any barriers separating us from our Guru
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