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Patkas And Hats With Turbans As A Rite Of Passage


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Patkas and Hats With Turbans as a Rite of Passage
I.J. Singh

We were at a Sikh wedding in a little town that has a small but vibrant Sikh community. In some of the rituals and functions, the community appeared as if frozen in time and culture, but that is not what prompted me to write this essay. Rather it was the appearance of many young, and some not so young, Sikhs — many dressed formally — sporting patkas instead of traditional turbans. (A patka is simply a square scarf like a bandana, usually about a foot and a half wide, and is tied as a head covering; a formal turban is about five yards of material.) I hasten to add that they were not young school-age lads. I am talking about young professionals. A couple had earned doctoral degrees; others were young technocrats and professionals at the high end of the earning scale. Their suits were definitely more expensive than mine; their shirts and ties were monogrammed. They knew and understood fashion. And their long hair — the keshas, an article of faith for a Sikh — was clearly unshorn.

Many of the older Sikhs looked askance at the young men. One Sikh angrily muttered that these young people should either wear turbans or get rid of their keshas. I wondered about that. I suggest a cooler, more nuanced look at the matter.

On the Internet one can view and explore the use of turbans in their many styles in different cultures through history. I look at the conventional style of turbans worn by Sikhs worldwide. There are a few, only minor variations on the theme — the style in East Africa is somewhat different but only slightly so. Our turban is radically different from the turban that you see in Islamic culture, although during these days of heightened tension, the average American is totally clueless about the difference between a Sikh and an Islamic follower of Osama bin Laden, who also might wear a turban. In fact, very few Muslims wear one and it is of a very different style from that worn by Sikhs. But I refer here to the urbanized Sikh turban. In the villages, Sikhs wear a more informal, rounder turban in the traditional style. These days I see some urbanized young people also wearing it, more so in North America than in India.

I realize that the style of the Sikh turban has perhaps changed somewhat over time. This becomes clear from an examination of old paintings and photographs of Sikhs in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also clear that in those times as well, they always wrapped their turbans; they certainly did not substitute a scarf or patka instead, nor a preformed turban and never a hat.

Historically, the turban signified dignity, and the Islamic rulers of India did not allow the common people to wear it. Within Hinduism, a distinction clearly existed in that only the so-called high-caste men wore turbans; the low castes were forbidden to do so. In these days, too, at least when they are getting married, most high-caste Hindu males don a turban, even if only for an hour. In their daily lives, most Hindus never see a turban; they would not have one in their wardrobe, except a rare ceremonial turban. Hindus 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. Few Muslims still wear a turban; often it is a ceremonial one and is usually wrapped over a kulla, or skullcap.

Sikhs have an important article of faith — the unshorn hair — that throughout Sikh history was protected by a turban. Some Sikhs contend that the keski (or dastaar), a small turban, is the article of faith and not the long hair per se. But then they add that implied in the keski is the long hair, a head covering without the hair in fact is meaningless in their view. I do not wish to explore this issue here.

Though not directly connected to this matter, some oft-seen practices baffle me. I see many so-called Sunday Sikhs who do not maintain the long unshorn keshas come to the gurdwara wearing a turban — which promptly comes off as they step into their cars at the conclusion of the gurdwara service. I am sure we have all seen young Sikhs with a one-day growth of beard wearing a turban for their own marriage ceremony. Then they reappear at the evening reception freshly shaved and minus the turban.

A patka is indeed just a scarf, even though it can be quite useful and sufficient, such as at play or in a gym. But I would not walk into a formal gathering wearing a bow-tie with my tennis shorts or jogging shoes; wouldn’t, then, a patka worn by a man wearing a suit and a tie be just as inappropriate at a wedding? I raise the question in full awareness of the fact that a patka looks out of place to me but perhaps is no more odd than my turban is to many Americans who may have never come across one.

Perhaps many young Sikhs are not adept at tying a turban. (Similarly, I am still grossly clumsy in tying a bow-tie when one is needed for a formal event.) I know one young Sikh professional who lives independently of his parents about 30 miles away. Every two weeks or so, the father visits the son and ties three or four turbans for him that the son can use, somewhat like a hat, until the father returns. I understand that the son has mastered the art of turban tying in the last few weeks; it is a skill that can be mastered, being about as difficult as learning to tie one’s shoelaces.

We all know of Sikhs — the crême de la crême of our community — who tie several turbans in one day and save them for future use as hats over the next several weeks. I know a former general of the Indian army who had special hatboxes designed to carry his turbans intact. I should add that I also know of Sikh generals who tied their turbans every day and took pride in doing so. A turban in a hatbox is a hat, albeit starched, custom made and constructed differently from the usual hat. Sikhs traditionally frown on such practice and, I feel, rightly so.

Walking about town, I also see a growing number of young Sikhs who wear their unshorn hair in a ponytail and thus without a hat, patka, dastaar or turban of any kind. In the gurdwara service, a hat or cap remains rare. I take note of one prominent exception, and that is the group of Lakshman Chellaram, but they never were keshadhari Sikhs. Lakshman Chellaram and his associates constitute an immensely popular group that sings the liturgy in gurdwaras across the world but they wear peaked white caps, the kind that are associated with a political party in India and are euphemistically dubbed Gandhi caps. For their caps they have attracted considerable criticism from Sikhs.

Until very recently, Sikhs had strongly shunned any kind of hat — that is, until the appearance of Bishen Singh Bedi. An extremely talented cricketer in India about 30 years ago, Bedi played cricket all over the world wearing a visored golf or tennis cap over a patka. He was a much-admired role model for many young Sikhs and the rest, as they say, is history. Ultimately, a hat would hide the Sikhs’ identity and individuality and, if for no other reason, would be a self-defeating practice. Sikhism exhorts its followers to live their lives such that their external form and internal lives are consistent and synchronous; hiding their Sikh identity would not be an acceptable alternative. I should strongly underscore here that Bishen Singh Bedi was never one to hide his Sikh identity; in fact, he strode on the world’s stage visibly proud of his Sikh heritage. This is what made him such an attractive role model to young Sikhs across the globe in the first place.

When I see a keshadhari Sikh working in a factory or at a construction site with a helmet over his dastaar or patka, I can understand his special needs. Clearly, though, what is even more trendsetting for young India-based Sikhs remains the Hindi movie industry. In Bollywood, any depiction of Sikhs is usually of patka-clad men; Sikhs in turbans are rarely shown in a dignified or admirable setting.

Some artistic representations of Guru Nanak, which are probably more imaginative than realistic, show him wearing a flat-topped hat, popularly called a selhi-topi. I do not know if Guru Nanak ever wore such a selhi-topi, but that is not pertinent to the discussion here. I also wonder what kind of a headdress Guru Gobind Singh wore as he sped through Macchiwara and was allegedly mistaken for a Muslim pir (holy man) by the pursuing Mughal armies. None of the artistic renderings of that event show him with a dastaar or a turban. I hasten to add that all such renditions of that time and event are a product of artistic imagination with its inevitable and considerable artistic license. No documentary evidence of his disguise as a Muslim pir exists.

But these speculations about the Gurus are of no import whatsoever, and if such issues are raised now they are best termed red herrings. What matters here and now is that for over 300 years, turbans have become and have been as much a part of Sikh tradition and Sikh code of conduct as the keshas that they protect. In the past three decades or so, as equal partners in the experience of being Sikh many young Sikh women in North America have also opted to wear a turban or keski — Cynthia Mahmood and Stacy Brady have documented this trend with great sensitivity in a recent monograph. Notably, the women converts to Sikhism that I have seen over the past 30 years all wear turbans or dastaars. Patkas are indeed appropriate in the gym and for related activities. Even though styles change, the traditional Sikh turban remains unique.

The fact that a hat is historically inappropriate on a Sikh’s head and a turban belongs there instead was not easily acknowledged worldwide; some battles still go on. Increasingly, many countries of the world — Britain, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, India and many more — recognize the right of Sikhs to serve in the armed services with their long hair intact and a turban. The American armed services still remain a bastion of intransigence even though they allow keshadhari Sikhs to serve on an individual basis via special dispensation. After years of stonewalling, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came around in 1995; amritdhari and keshadhari Sikhs now serve in that force. In California and Washington, D.C., the police have publicly announced their willingness to recruit keshadhari Sikhs, but New York is not quite that cooperative yet*. Perhaps a state-by-state campaign to admit Sikhs into the police lies ahead. I believe the logic of the Sikh stance on turbans is unassailable and progress inevitable.

A meaningful way 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 keshas under it. From that viewpoint, then, it is not just a cultural eccentricity but the cornerstone of a Sikh’s existence, essential to the definition of self. Donning a turban is no longer an ordinary event but a rite of passage.

I would like to share some feelings about the moment that a Sikh boy first wears a turban.

Satwant Singh is now 13. He is no longer a little boy; it’s time for him to join the fraternity of young men. He was to start tying a turban on his head like all Sikh men. So I was sitting through the rite of Dastaar Bandhi to mark his rite of passage.

As I sat, I couldn’t help wondering why we have not yet evolved a comparable rite for our young women at the threshold of womanhood. Some other religions have. For example, Jews who have for centuries celebrated only a bar mitzvah for young boys have now added the celebration of a bat mitzvah for young girls. We, too, need to think about this. I don’t know if it should be Dastaar Bandhi for girls, but somehow some specific note must be taken of the fact that gender equality lies at the core of Sikh teaching.

Satwant’s uncle and aunt sang shabds — hymns. His father, too, sang one, and my thoughts went to what might be going through the father’s head as he escorted his son into the world of Sikh men.

I remember that, when he landed in this country 30 years ago, Satwant’s father was about 9 or 10 years old, a tad younger than his son is now. At the time he could not sit quietly for more than a New York minute — an immeasurably, infinitesimally small moment. Much of his energy is still with him, and he has matured into an energetic young man full of plans for his family and his community.

I remember meeting the family when they first arrived here in 1970. There was no more than a handful of recognizable Sikhs in New York then, and we had not yet built the first permanent gurdwara. Our community was too small to afford the luxury of the catfights, legal battles and splits that distinguished us in the coming years.

This family comprised two little boys, a sister and the parents, obviously attached to their Sikh roots. The boys were rambunctious; Satwant, too, is assertive and aggressive, much like his father and uncle. In the New York of those times, even if he came from a Sikh family, it was a rare Sikh boy who could be seen with his unshorn keshas at school or play. But, in spite of all the advice to do so, cutting the hair of the two boys was not an option the parents wanted to entertain.

I have seen the whole family mature in their sense of Sikhism and carry the torch that is now symbolically in the hands of the 13-year-old Satwant. He is the third generation in this country. As I witnessed the ceremony, I wondered if the father was thinking about his own rough times years earlier as the often lone Sikh boy at school. But then my thoughts were of the time when Satwant was born and of how his father probably thought then of the rough times that lay ahead for his son.

Years ago the father was placed on the road less traveled by his father, and now young Satwant has embarked on it. Why this path, and what lies ahead?

We know the history. Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa 300 years ago by flashing a sword and demanding a head, but the foundation stone was laid by Guru Nanak two centuries earlier. The Khalsa was destined to be a people fearless in the pursuit of righteousness. Sikhs were to hone, cultivate and heed their own conscience and plumb the depths of their own faith. Guru Gobind Singh saw that each of us has a constant battle to fight and that no battlefield is more critical than the one of our own mind. Three hundred years ago Guru Gobind Singh illustrated the lesson of life: live each moment of your life so that you can put your head on the line; whatever you do, do it so that you can live and die with dignity.

Three centuries have passed since these lessons were etched on the Sikh psyche and consciousness. Guru Gobind Singh now does not appear before his Sikhs flashing a naked sword and demanding a head. Why stay on the road less traveled?

Yes, times have changed and now the question is framed differently, but the challenge and the intent remain unchanged. The flashing sword is replaced by the prospect of social isolation, economic deprivation, social embarrassment or harassment on the job. The instrument of challenge is now the affable colleague or your neighbor asking all those awkward questions. The question is asked a hundred times a day and in myriad ways. Your head is still on the line as it always will be. Those are the lessons of our history. The Guru still challenges you to live fully and fearlessly with your head in the palm of your hand. Events post 9/11 have once again driven these issues home to us.

If dignity and integrity lie at the core of a Sikh existence, Satwant must become a man who can see the “us in them and them in us” in other men and women no matter what they look like or what religion they profess or passport they carry. It is a lesson not easily learned and never comfortably accepted, but one that our history, heritage, tradition and community and his family will have to help him discover and integrate into his life.

The precepts and path of Sikhism are not only for the space and geography where they were first articulated and practiced; they are universal. The teachings are not just for the time when they were enunciated, but for all time, and they are most powerfully expressed through the five articles of faith. The challenge is to integrate the garb of a Sikh with the internal life and character of one; the task and the test are not in being a Sikh but in becoming one.

Tradition comes alive only to those who remember it. The turban asks you to stand tall and proud but always to remember that you stand on the shoulders of giants. History is not just what happened yesterday; it is also what you do today.

Welcome, Satwant, to living history

[Extracted from the author’s book “Being and Becoming a Sikh” (pp 55-63) published in 2003 by Centennial Foundation, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada]

* Following the landmark decision in the Jaggi vs NYPD case on 28th April 2004, turbaned Sikhs can now freely join the New York Police Department- Editor



1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
IJ Singh is still a member, but we post for him when we find good stuff. He continues as a professor of anatomy at New York University. He writes regularly for SikhChic and Sikh News and a few other Internet venues.