India Pride Of Tying Turbans: Crowns For The Commoner

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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Folded or twisted like a rope and tied in a myriad ways around the head, with interesting regional and individual variations, the turban worn by the Indian male is much more than a headgear. An unstitched length of cloth, its style of tying concedes details of the wearer — that could include the place he hails from, his caste or occupation. From the simple turbans worn by farmers to the resplendent, brocaded weaves worn by erstwhile royalty, their range is fantastic, with seemingly minor variations making all the difference.

While evidence of the tradition of wearing turbans is gleaned in old paintings and sculpture, they continue to be worn by men across the country from the elegant white turbans worn in the northeastern state of Manipur to the colorful turbans worn in scorching desert regions of Rajasthan. The birth of Sikhism and of the Khalsa Panth by the tenth Guru Gobind Singh, which enjoins Sikh men to keep long hair and wear a turban, brought the neat, tiered turbans into the attire of Sikhs. The Nihang Sikhs, distinguished by their dark blue attire, wear elongated turbans with steel quoits fixed to them. They also wear saffron turbans sometimes, or a yellow band below the blue turban. So ingrained is the tradition of wearing turbans that even the dapper urbanite dons a turban on his wedding day, often studded with a turban ornament, never mind his daily western attire or work environment.

The turban probably started off as a means of protecting the wearer from the elements of weather and injury, before it moved on to become an indicator of his status. Of varying lengths and breadths, the large and loose turbans worn in the desert regions of Rajasthan are comfortable, protective against the elements, and can easily double-up as a pillow or a cover while sleeping. Up to eighteen meters in length, a turban can be used as a rope to lower a bucket into a well to draw water, and sieve it if necessary! And in more tumultuous times past, it could cushion blows to a warrior’s head, be torn into strips to serve as bandages or a fugitive could bind it around his face to make a quick getaway without being recognized.
Evolving through the centuries with a complex of physical, cultural and historical factors, which differ through the country, the turban became symbolic of chivalry, honor, respect and brotherhood. A man’s turban is his valued possession and no man forcibly touches or removes another’s turban, which commands respect and honor. In this vein while seeking a request or forgiveness for a wrong a man may remove his turban. To surrender his turban to another indicates his subjugation, while placing it at someone’s feet is symbolic of total surrender.

From fine muslins to heavy Paithani and Benares brocades, turban cloths are worn to suit the occasion and status of the wearer. The size, color and fabric preferences differ from region to region, and also according to individual preferences with a spectrum of colors seen in Rajasthan. While elders prefer wearing white, brilliant yellow turbans are worn on the occasion of festivals such as Baisakhi and Basant Panchmi, which held the arrival of spring. Light shades such as a soft pink may be preferred in the summer months, while red turbans are worn on Dussehera, saffron is worn on auspicious occasions and special tie-dyed turbans are worn in Rajasthan on festive occasions. Pink and red turbans are also worn during wedding ceremonies.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the resplendent turbans worn by royalty and their noblemen, were at their best at durbars, and a glimpse of the past is still gleaned in ceremonial occasions of erstwhile royal families. The diversity of royal turbans is seen in visuals of royal gatherings where the Maharajas of the Sikh states wore resplendent Sikh turbans with beautiful gem-studded jewelry; the Gwalior maharaja wore the boat shaped Shindeshahi pagri at an angle; while the turbans worn by the Maharajas and Rajas of kingdoms in Rajasthan were stunning in their range and character.

The royal turban was at its regal best worn when adorned by turban ornaments, reflective of the power and royal status of the ruler. Of all the jewelry worn by rulers, the turban ornament was the sole privilege of royalty and nobility. The Mughals maintained that royalty blood relatives of the ruler, honored nobles or officials could only wear the turban ornament. The turban ornament, styled on bird plumes was shaped like feathers that extended backwards with a curved tip, which was further accentuated with a suspended pearl or gemstone. These ornaments could also be straight, symmetrical or asymmetrical; worked on one or both sides with different combinations of gemstones on the obverse and reverse.

An amazing variety of tie-dyed turban materials are available in Jaipur and other cities of Rajasthan, where long turban cloths, intricately tie-dyed are worn on special occasions. Thus, from princes to peasants, worn with or without ornaments, the turban goes far beyond being a headgear.


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Mai Harinder Kaur

Oct 6, 2006
British Columbia, Canada
It looks like we women have some catching up to do. For some reason, we have been lacking imagination and style in tying our turbans. I would love to see Singhnis in peaked turbans with crisp lahrs in lovely colours and even prints. Our turbans, of course, are not fashion statements, but there is no reason they cannot be beautiful and appropriate to the occasion.

I remember that sometimes my husband would sometimes spend up to 45 minutes getting his turban perfect. He claimed this was love for Guru ji, not vanity. I wonder...


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