Sunday, February 1, 2004

Bans and turbans
A matter of honour

The French government’s move to ban the turban has triggered protests from Sikhs across the world. This is not the first time the turban has run into trouble. It has seen some trying times on foreign shores during its long and chequered history. It has stirred opposition, curiosity, ridicule and was even spurned in cultures unfamiliar with what it stood for. The turban has existed in India since time immemorial as a symbol of pride and honour. After 9/11, turbaned persons have been targeted by bigots in the US and Europe. Much like the enterprising Sikh, who ventures unafraid to distant lands, the turban too has endured. The turban tells its tale of travails and triumph in the words of Roopinder Singh.

Sikh students of a school in France
Sikh students of a school in France
More pictures...

Come to think of it, I am just yards of fine muslin cloth in a myriad of colours and, sometimes, designs. Yet when I adorn the head of those who wear me, I am the epitome of grace, culture and honour. Wars have been fought over me, people have become brothers when they exchange me with another of my kin — Maharaja Ranjit Singh gained the Kohinoor diamond in this fashion. I am a turban.

Now they want to ban me in schools in France. But how can they do it? So many men who wore me died fighting for France. I have been a crown on the heads of historical figures, and of those who are not even footnotes of history. I have made my presence felt in the continents of Asia and Africa for centuries. And if you look back at civilisations, you’ll find my mention in the Old Testament and in Egyptian, Turkish and Indian texts and art; in fact, almost everywhere where civilisation made an impact. Why, even relief medallions at Sanchi and Bharhut stupas, dating back to 2nd Century BC or earlier, feature me.

The Egyptians called me pjr, I am referred to as the turban in Biblical texts, in Persian I am called dastar and in Arabic one of the words for me is imamah. In Hindi I am called pagree and in Punjabi am referred to as both pagari or dastar. Other terms for me include murassa, khirki-dar, Faruq Shahi, atpati, kuladar, pechdar and Safawi, named after the dynasty of the same name in Iran.

I am a symbol of honour, which is why if someone talks of soiling a turban, it implies being dishonoured. In fact, a great honour being conferred upon someone by royalty is dastar a fazilat. Today, I will confine this narration to India and, in particular, to the Sikhs. In passing, let me mention that I was an item of formal wear in the southern states, where Iyers used silk cloth. In Maharashtra, there was the pheta and, of course, Rajasthan is well known for my colourful cousins called pagari, pencha, sela, or safa. Museums in Udaipur and Jodhpur have hundreds of styles on display.

What is my ideal length? Actually, it varies, based on the area, style and the person. Historians will bear me out when I tell you that Prince Salim, the 16th-century Sultan of Turkey, wore 11 yards of malmal, and other Muslim nobles followed suit. Nowadays, it varies from 5 to 8 yards. The Nihang Sikhs wear turbans, which are many times this size!

In Mughal India, when a reign changed, the new Emperor evolved a style uniquely his own, which was, of course, widely followed. Just look at how Emperors Babur, Hamayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, and their successors changed the style.

For the Sikhs, I am what Guru Gobind Singh ordered his Khalsa to wear at all times. However, because of my distinctiveness, the Sikhs have gone through various trials and tribulations in the last three centuries. They were easily identified and persecuted during the reign of the Mughals and from time to time thereafter, but have remained steadfast in their devotion to me and all that I stand for. The slogan: "Pagari sambhal oye Jatta," by Shaheed Bhagat Singh's uncle became a clarion call for independence from British colonialism.

They have refused to take me off, even if asked to do so as a safety measure. Memorably, in World War II, Sikh soldiers who were fighting for the British refused to wear steel helmets, despite knowing that the causalities among them would be higher if they did so. When told by their officers that the cost of pensions etc. accruing from their death was too much for the British Empire to bear, they unanimously agreed to forego any pension if they got a head injury. They still refused to dispense with me. Nowadays, the dispute is about crash helmets for motorcyclists, and the governments of Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and the UK have amended their laws to make special allowance for me.

Someone has documented that during World Wars I and II, 83,055 turbaned Sikh soldiers died and 1,09,045 were wounded when fighting under the command of the Allied forces

Many Sikhs, settled in the UK following World War II, faced discrimination because of me. In 1969, however, the Sikh bus company employees in Wolverhampton, led by Sohan Singh Jolly, won the right to wear turbans while on duty. This marked the successful culmination of a long-running campaign.

Other skirmishes followed, notably in Manchester, and it was only in 1982 that the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, ruled that Sikhs are a distinct ethnic group entitled to protection under the Race Relations Act. Nowadays, in the UK, turban-wearing Sikhs can be seen in all walks of life, including the police and the army.

In the US, I was called all kinds of names when Sikh immigrants first touched the shores of California at the end of the 19th century. They were derisively called "rag heads" because of me. Turbaned Bhagat Singh Thind served in the US army during World War I, but was denied American citizenship because he was "non-European White." Now many Sikhs wear me proudly, many hold top jobs, but the armed forces still discriminate against me. I have faced problems because of ignorance and bigotry after 9/11, but it has always been a continuing struggle to educate people about what I stand for.

In Canada, I faced problems during the early 1900s and, in fact, the Sikhs were disfranchised by British Columbia in 1907, and the Komagatu Maru tragedy, where 376 passengers of the ship were not allowed to disembark at Vancouver, followed in 1914. However, Canada gave voting rights to these people in 1947 and things changed.

In 1990, Baltej Singh Dhillon proudly wore me and joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Some bigoted Canadians protested, but finally the ruling was in my favour a few years later.

In Africa, turbaned Sikhs did not face much problem, except for dealing with curiosity, which always happens. The same was much the case in New Zealand and Australia, except for one time when some members of the Australian Returned Services League tried to have Sikhs debarred from one of their clubs because they refused to remove their turbans on the premises of the club. I understand that the RSL objectors had to back down.

Anyway, so much for my being discriminated against. Most of the time I strike a distinctive note, which attracts attention. And many people are curious about how I am tied. Well, there are various ways, and indeed many distinct styles have evolved, expressing the individuality of various persons as well as the togetherness of various groups.

The way I have been tied often reflected the society of the time and of course there was always the sartorial element. A matching turban, a contrasting one, a bandhni turban with a splash of colours, a lehariya turban in which pattern makes waves, the African turban with its flat folds. There have been so many turbans, so many ways in which the Sikhs have tied them....

The patterns that the Sikhs wear come primarily from the Rajputs of Rajasthan, where there are thousands of my cousins. Since societal life is stratified in that area, colours and patterns represent specific castes or sub-groups. The way they are tied is also strictly laid down.

For the Sikhs, however, there are no hard and fast rules, though various social groups and geographical areas such as Malwa, Majha, Peshawar, Pothohar and Afghanistan have distinct styles. The Jats tie me differently from the non-Jats. The former, for example, do not wear patterns, just plain ones.

As for the colour, the elderly wear white, which is also a political colour of the Congress Party. The Akalis support royal blue, electric blue and saffron. Most Sikhs have at least half a dozen colours, which they wear to suit the occasion or the attire. Princely states, however, had distinctive colours of their own (see box).

Colours of the turban

Indian armed forces

Black Cavalry and Armoured Corps
Green Infantry
Maroon Special Forces and Para- commandos

Princely states

The following were the colours favoured for formal turbans by the royalty of the princely states of Punjab:
Patiala Pink (court) and lemon.
Faridkot Hara Ferozi (turquoise).
Nabha Maroon
Jind Orange

Black, however, became a colour of specific protest during the British Raj after the tragic killings of the Sikhs at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, now in Pakistan, where the local mahants, in connivance with the British authorities, had killed a large number of pilgrims.

In fact, Baba Kharak Singh, a prominent leader of the time, wore me in black. He was jailed by the British from 1922 to 1927. Hundreds of other Sikhs also wore black at that time and many were jailed, but remained steadfast in their demand till the British relented. In the troubled decade of the 1980s, saffron became a colour of discontent.

Though I am overwhelmingly worn by men, women too sport turbans, especially those belonging to the Akhand Kirtani Jatha of Bhai Randhir Singh and also American women converts to Sikhism. They follow the injunction made by Guru Gobind Singh who asked Mai Bhago to wear the kachera and tie a turban. Though small in number, these ladies do cut a dashing figure.

When you talk of me, you have to keep in mind the royal house of Patiala, which evolved the distinctive Patiala Shahi turban in which a thumb is used to create a depression near the forehead. The Patiala turban was standardised during the reign of Maharaja Bhupendra Singh.

Urdu poet Faiz wrote a beautiful couplet about me. Sari-khusrau se naazi-kaj kutahi chin bhi jata hai/ Kutha-i-Khusaravi se bue sultani nahai jati. While the turban may be taken from the head of a Sultan, the aroma of royalty will not leave the turban.

I am rooted in history that is inseparable from the spiritual journey of the believer. This reason alone is sufficient for me not to be taken lightly or easily dismissed, even though I have, like the symbols that stem out of other religions, become for many followers more an expression of religiosity and cultural values than of spirituality.

I have to be respected for what I stand for, and those who tie me have to reflect on that too, since it is their conduct that will give me the power to stand for honour. "You judge a man by his turban, gait and his speech," maintains an ancient Persian saying. How true.