Why do the Sikhs Wear Turban?

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The precise origin of turbans is not known by anyone. In Mesopotamia and ancient India, references to the turban date back almost 4,000 years. There is little consensus on what it should look like or how it should be worn. If unfurled, it can measure up to 40 meters in length and can be wrapped tightly around the head or sat loosely; it can have a peak or flat top or even tilted. It is a distinct type of headgear that can be seen in countries throughout South and Central Asia, as well as North and West Africa, with each having its own style and reasons for wearing it.

However, of all those who wear a turban, the Sikhs have truly made it their own. Guru Gobind Singh, the faith's tenth and final human guru, summoned his disciples in April 1699 to Anandpur in the north Indian state of Punjab to celebrate Baisakhi, the annual harvest festival. It was here that he founded the Khalsa (the pure), a brother and sisterhood of baptized Sikhs, and issued a number of edicts that molded Sikhism into what it is today.

Sikhs were required to maintain five articles of faith, called the five Ks because each begins with the letter K in Punjabi. The most distinctive is kesh, which involves wearing uncut hair in a turban. The other four are -kara, a steel bracelet symbolizing strength and integrity; kirpan, a sword symbolizing martial excellence; kanga, a wooden comb demonstrating cleanliness and order; and kachhera, cotton shorts representing chastity. The five Ks continue to provide the community with a collective identity, binding together individuals based on a shared belief and practice.

Sikhism's most identifiable symbol, however, is the kesh in a turban. It's important to understand the faith's history and the prevailing culture of Indian society to understand why Guru Gobind Singh chose this for his followers.

The founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 into a Hindu family in Punjab in 1469. He preached a revolutionary spiritual and temporal message that opposed both Hinduism and Islam. In particular, he drew against the oppressive Hindu caste system, insisting that a single divine force created the entire world and resided within it.

In India, turbans were already a status symbol, worn by spiritual teachers such as Guru Nanak (they were also worn by the following nine Gurus), the nobility, and the wealthy, while long hair was an established symbol of holiness and spiritual power. Thus, Guru Gobind Singh was attempting not only to create a distinctly separate identity for Sikhs (until this time, they were not able to distinguish themselves from Hindus or Muslims) but also to infuse them with spiritual strength and remind them that they are all noble and equal before God.

The Sikh religion is now the fifth largest religion in the world, with an estimated 27 million followers, mostly in Punjab. According to the 2011 census, there are 423,000 Sikhs in the UK, with significant populations spread across other countries as well. 

However, not all Sikhs wear turbans. Even within the same Sikh family, some members wear turbans while others don't. There are growing concerns that the majority of Punjabis and the diaspora do not wear the turban, causing a theological debate about whether the turban is mandatory or not if you call yourself a Sikh. 

According to the Rehat Maryada which was formalized in 1945 by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee - a Sikh is someone who has been baptized and wears the five Ks "as bequeathed by the 10th Guru".  According to liberals, being Sikh is a matter of personal choice, regardless of whether you are baptized or wear a turban. In Sikhism, there are orthodox and unorthodox elements, and how you practice it determines your position on this debate.

Several current trends have also affected the Sikh turban. Wearing them is becoming increasingly popular among Sikh females in Britain, something they have not traditionally done. In the years following 9/11, Sikhs have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes, particularly in the US, where some have mistaken them for Muslims, Taliban, or Isis supporters due to their beards and turbans.

Turbans are an important part of the Sikh identity. The turban was accepted by the Sikh gurus as a symbol of the equality, royalty, and sovereignty of all Sikhs. Sikhs view their turbans as gifts from their beloved gurus. Despite the challenges it faces, the Sikh turban is likely to continue to be the enduring symbol of history and faith that it was always meant to be.

*Based on an article by Vivek Choudhary published in The Guardian 


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