Tracing the History Of The Sikh Turban

Since the time of Guru Nanak, Sikhism has had a tradition of wearing turbans but it was the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind S...

A turban is one of the ways that makes Sikhs recognizable and distinct (Niara). The turban also protects and secures the uncut hair (Kesh) coiled at the top of the head. The uncut hair covered by a turban is the most prominent among the visible symbols of the Sikh identity. The Sikh turban persists to this day as a testament to the importance placed in the earliest Rehits (Khalsa code of conduct) on the turban as a mark of a warrior-king. However, the question of the origin of the Sikh turban still lingers on. 

This article tries to give a brief treatment of the topic by looking at Sikh history to show that though the symbolism and strength behind the Sikh turban have remained strong, the specific style in which it’s expressed has evolved quite a bit.

The Period of the Sikh Gurus (~1500-1700)

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Guru Gobind Singh on horse wearing the royal Indic turban

In Sikh history, the first type of turban we see is the one tied by the Gurus, and perhaps by other affluent Sikhs during the time of the first nine Gurus (and perhaps some Khalsa Sikhs as well). As opposed to the perception that the Gurus created an entirely new and unique style of turban, what they tied was what can be called the Royal Indic turban popular among the royal classes in North India at the time. 

This turban originated from Rajput tradition and was adopted by the Mughals beginning with Akbar (who was the first Mughal emperor to renounce his Turkic roots and accept Indic customs and culture), and it would be carried on by subsequent Mughals.

Following the Mughal adoption of the turban style, it spread to aristocratic and royal groups in North India, such as the Marathas and Jats who were battling for power across post-Mughal India.

This style was also worn by Sikh Gurus since the turban was associated with royalty and aristocracy. The identical style of the turban and  plume was one of the reasons why some old paintings of Gurus were mistaken for those of the Mughal Emperors. 

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Contemporary painting of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Sikh Guru — wore royal Indic turban w/plume

It's difficult to say when this style went out among Sikhs and how popular it was among the Khalsa when turban tying became necessary for Singhs who took pahul (also known as Amrit, the initiation rite into the Khalsa). There aren't enough contemporary portraits, but it's safe to infer that notable Khalsa Singhs like Banda Singh (1670-1716) or the Panj Pyare wore this form of turban as well.

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Bhai Alam Singh, a prominent Sikh in Bihar in the late 1700s, wearing a royal Indic turban without the band

The Period of Khalsa (~1700–1820)

Following the royal Indic turban of the Gurus, the heavily militarized Khalsa Sikhs adopted a new turban style designed to accommodate a Joorha (uncut hair)- this style of the turban was known as the Khalsa-style turban. The Pagh style seems to have developed from the aforementioned royalty one, starting with the omission of the band that holds the turban in place. A Khalsa-style turban is very similar to generic turban styles seen in Punjab at the same time, as well as turban styles popular among Hindu Pahari Rajputs, and may have been heavily influenced by these styles (or vice versa). 

Through time , it appears that this style grew more firmly wrapped around the joorha (topknot) of uncut hair protruding out on top, becoming the first uniquely Sikh turban style. The Khalsa-style turban would be quite small and lightweight (with ears always exposed and typically side/back of head exposed), and would have been appropriate for Khalsa Singhs constantly on the go on horseback or in the midst of battle.

There were variations in the style of turban worn by each individual. A notable variation is a large Khalsa-style turban worn by some Singhs, which is remarkably similar to the "Dumalla" style worn by many Akali-Nihangs today. There is also a smaller, more tightly bound Khalsa-style turban that resembles the "Patkas" worn by Sikh adolescents today. 

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Misl general Jassa Singh Ramgarhia with his two sons — all three wearing the Khalsa-style turban

Eventually, the Khalsa-style turban Pagh style died out among the mainstream as the Sikh Empire/Raj approached, except among a few elders who wore it out of tradition. It survives in rural Punjab as an informal style and is also followed by  the Namdharis, a sect founded by Ram Singh, a Sikh reformer who promoted a modest lifestyle and all-white, traditional garb. The modern dumalla, which is typically associated with Nihangs, is actually a bigger Khalsa-style turban that covers the ears and sides of the head.

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Modern Namdhari congregation, wearing a more straight-edge variant of the Khalsa-style turban

Akali-Nihangs through Sikh Raj (1801–1849) and beyond (1849–Present)

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A procession of Akali-Nihangs in British-controlled Amritsar in 1905

As a group, the Akali-Nihangs are generally accepted to be descendants of Shaheedan Misl, a misl known for its traditionalist principles and for producing fierce, but fiercely independent nomadic warriors. It is believed that Akali Naina Singh, one of the earliest leaders of the Akali-Nihangs, was a member of this misl.It can be seen that he wore a Khalsa-style turban with exposed ears, albeit adorned with several weapons. 

There are some eventual developments in this turban style among various Akali-Nihangs, including the addition of height to the turban as well as the addition of a flap at the top known as a Farla. Akali Naina Singh was succeeded as leader of the Akali-Nihangs by the prodigious Akali Phoola Singh Nihang, a contemporary of Ranjit Singh who established a standard for Akali-Nihang turbans. 

Compared to prior turban styles, this one has gained height, is richly adorned with weapons (including Chakkars that add a layered appearance), and retains the blue color and farla. A turban like this became synonymous with the Akali-Nihang during the Sikh empire and was known as the boonga dastar (boonga refers to towers or fortresses occupied by Sikh warriors, and dastar means turban in Persian). The boonga-dastar became a moving battle standard, while the Farla became a flag. 

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A boonga dastar from the Anglo-Sikh wars on display in a British museum

The Akali-Nihangs' formidable appearance and character (they were often referred to by Europeans as "Sikh fanatics") would dot the battlefields of Punjab and Afghanistan until the Akali-Nihangs were expelled and disarmed following their defeat to the British while led by the charismatic Hanuman Singh.

In the colonial period, Akali-Nihangs in Punjab and in the south of India maintained the distinctive turban tradition with a variety of modifications to the boonga dastar or the original Khalsa-style turban. 

The Period Of Sikh Raj (1809-1849) 

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Various Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims of the royal court of Ranjit Singh wearing the regal turban

In 1801, the power of the individual Khalsa Sikh misls was consolidated under the ambitious leader of the Sukerchakia misl, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. At his young age, he wore a traditional little Khalsa-style turban with his joorha of uncut hair protruding out and ears exposed. 

Sikh Raj saw transition to a new form of the turban for Sikhs. Generally, Muslims and some Rajput royals in northern India and Afghanistan started wearing a turban with a dip in the middle, which we will call the regal turban (possibly inspired by the Afghans). As the warrior Khalsa Sikhs escalated to royalty, they started adopting this more regal pagh. In appearance, Muslim and Rajput royals left their hair exposed under their turban, whereas Singhs had it tied underneath  a Joorha and a "base" turban, on top of which they tied their regal turban. In later styles, the regal turban was often accompanied by a large flowing flap covering the neck, perhaps the beginning of the Turla. The later paintings of Ranjit Singh reflect his transition to this turban style. 

During the Sikh Raj, the turban style diverged significantly, and Sikhs tied the regal turban in many different ways. Some styles stuck closer to the Khalsa-style turban, while others were more loosely tied, open, and flowing, some had stylistic innovations from external groups like the Rajputs or Pathans, some fused with helmets, and some tied more tightly in more of a triangular shape with a symmetrical middle dip. As the precursor to the Nok Pagh, or triangular turban, this style would mark the future development of the Sikh turban. 

The face of the Turban during the Colonial Period (1849–1947)

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Sikh officers of an Punjab Infantry regiment in 1857 shortly after helping suppress mutiny forces

After the annexation of Punjab, the Sikh turban style largely followed the previous trend. Several Khalsa Singhs served in Fauj-i-Ain army of Ranjit Singh’s army , which was modeled after Napoleon's French army, so it wasn't the first time the turban was juxtaposed with Western clothes. 

As we see, Singhs continued to tie the Nok Pagh as before, but slowly began to remove the underside flap and tie them more compactly. 

The Sikh look in the military began to evolve into its modern incarnation in the late 19th century (the 1870s). In particular, Sikhs serving the British began tying their flowing uncut beards in nets, and the Nok Pagh became neater, albeit quite large. 

A trend toward a more compact, symmetric, and neater turban throughout the colonial era (accompanied by a tied beard) can be detected. It should also be emphasised that turbans varied greatly amongst regiments, with changes in size, style, and ornamentation (although all were fundamentally nok paghs with a clearly defined middle cut-out). The "fifty" — the straight strip of cloth that would fill out the nok trimcut-out in the middle of the turban — had been adopted by this time by the nok pagh.

By the 1930s, the nok pagh had successfully evolved to what it is today, at least among military men and professionals; Singh's beards were carefully knotted and tied, and the pagh had a small, compact, and neat appearance.

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Royal of Patiala state, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, who popularized the fashionable “Patiala-shahi” nok pagh style

Turban trends varied widely among the common population. There was a trickle-down effect from the military in terms of the triangular turban styles becoming popular among various Colonial-era Sikhs, who would have their own variants based on regional/cultural differences. 

The Era of the Gol Purna/ Round Turban/Keski (1700-Present)

The term Gol pagh (meaning "round turban"), Parna (meaning "casual turban"), and Keski (meaning "under-turban") are more or less interchangeable in common usage since the specific term used is more reflective of personal preference. We will primarily refer to it as "Gol parna" in this article. The Parna is known to be easier to tie and more comfortable than most standard pagh styles because of its simplicity. In rural Punjab (not just Sikhs), it was commonly worn when working in the fields for practical purposes. 

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Punjabi Sikh farmers with parnas

Sikhs used Parnas as an "under-turban" to keep uncut hair in place before tying a proper turban on top as well. Many professional Sikhs and Sikhs in the military witnessed this. While in casual settings such at home, such Sikhs would often choose to wear the parna for its comfort.

Additionally, the simplicity of the Parna contributed to its adoption by Sikhs with a more saintly bent. A Parna was commonly worn in white by Sikhs from established Deras, including many Nirmalas (although orange and ochre were also commonly worn in saintly Sadhu robes), which symbolized a simpler lifestyle than the outwardly royal warrior turban, while maintaining the Khalsa requirement of covering the uncut hair with a turban. 

It was during the 20th century that many such saintly groups would emerge; one of them was the Jatha Bhindran, a saintly sect focusing on Vedantic interpretation of Sikh texts (influenced by the Nirmalas) who became influential within the Damdami Taksal, an ancient Sikh institution. Although the first leader of this group, Sundar Singh, wore his parna in white, his successor Gurbachan Singh, wore a blue parna connecting it to the martial culture of the Khalsa.

When Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale rose to prominence in the 1970s, this merging of the originally "saintly" Taksalis with martial Khalsa culture reached its peak. Bhindranwale exhibited a heavily martial view of the Sikh faith through his attire and his call for Sikhs to remain armed. His fierce, warrior-like appearance, right down to his eternally blue Parna, became iconic to Indian and Western media. 

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Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

When the Khalistani insurgency broke out in Punjab in the 1980s, Khalistani Kharkus wore turbans of all types — the standard NOK turban, informal patterned Parnas often worn for farming, historical exonerated turbans such as the Dumalla (and even Khalsa-style), and the Gol Parna now given a martial and religious angle by the charismatic Bhindranwale. 

Many factors contributed to the popularity of the Gol Parna among modern Sikhs, and Bhindranwale's status as a youth icon is certainly one of them. However, there is an incorrect belief among many Sikhs (and Indian non-Sikhs) that this turban-style represented orthodoxy and extremism (associated with Khalistan) and was seen as a traditionalist rejection of the nok turban; this is incorrect given its origins in saintly denominations and simplicity, as well as the fact that many, if not most, Khalistani militants wore nok paghs.

PERIOD VI - Modern Era (1950s-now)

The modern era can be defined as the period after Sikhs in Punjab were freed from British rule, began emigrating to other parts of the world and also the recent influx of modern media where we see the Sikh turban become a truly international phenomenon.

For turbaned Sikh males, the Nok turban dominates the landscape. This form of turban has spilled over to the Parna styles in the Punjab countryside, resulting in the "Nok Parna," which still has that triangular shape but is meant for casual wear. Nok turbans are also popular among Sikh men both in the West and in India, although Punjab is generally known for having the most innovative styles and having ones with larger and more elaborate shapes. 

There is a variant of the Nok pagh that originated among Tarkhan immigrants to Kenya that has become quite popular among Singhs in the UK. The Gol Parna is becoming more acceptable in Western countries such as the US, UK, and Canada due to the cultural displacement of Westernization and the cultural legacy of events and individuals in the 80s. 

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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who wears a blend of a keski+dumalla style

Among modern Sikh women who choose to wear a turban, the thinner keski variant is especially popular and is one of the most popular turban styles. 

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Ishprit Kaur from “The Sikh Project” donning a keski

In conclusion, we see that the Sikh turban has persisted and manages to still have a strong presence — and that the historical styles such as the gol parna, dumalla, keski, and nok turban continue to evolve and diversify further, embodying the eternal identity of the keshdhari Khalsa gifted by the tenth Guru despite the prominent forces of modernity and Westernization pushing a number of Sikh youths across the globe to cut their hair and forgo the Khalsa identity maintained by their forefathers.There is no doubt that the Sikh turban will remain to be a prominent symbol of history and faith for the Sikhs.

 

*Based on an article on Medium/ JungNihang / Mar 6, 2019

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