TURBAN, derived from the ancient Persian word dulband through the Turkish tarbush, is a long scarf wrapped around the head. It is a common headdress for men in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. As a form of headdress, it is of Semitic origin and was an essential part of the Israeli High Priest`s uniform in Moses` day, 1300 BC, as stated in the Old Testament (Exodus, 28 :4). In India, it is to be seen as worn by men depicted in the Ajanta caves (200 BC) and on the Sahchi Gateway (150 BC).

Traditionally, wearing of turban was a sign of holiness, and frequently, its size, material and style indicated the position and rank of the wearer. The Sanskrit word pak, from which the Punjabi pagg, or turban, is obviously derived, stands for maturity and greyness of hair. Punjabi idiom and usage also testify to the importance of turban as a symbol of respectability. For example, pagg di laj rakkhna, lit. to maintain the honour of the turban, means to behave in a socially proper manner ; pagg lahuna, lit. to knock off the turban, means to insult; and pag vatauna, lit. to exchange turbans, signifies the transformation of friendship into brotherhood vowing fraternal love and loyalty.

Until recent `times wearing of a headdress, turban or cap, usually of the former, by all men from boyhood onwards was almost universal in the Punjab. Even now customs persist preserving the importance of turban in Punjabi society and culture.A bridegroom, irrespective of the religious tradition he belongs to, would as a rule wear a turban on his wedding day. A turban is ceremonially presented to and worn by the son at the end of the obsequies in honour of a deceased parent.

Turban is the coveted prize during wrestling matches. While other communities in the Punjab have gradually discarded the wearing of turban generally under the influence of western culture, for the Sikhs it has a religious significance. In fact, along with untrimmed hair, turban has become a distinguishing feature of the Sikh male the world over. The Gurus wore turbans, and their disciples naturally followed them.

Guru Arjan (1563-1606) describing a true man of God had mentioned turban being a part of an ideal appearance (GG, 10S4). By the time of the Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), turban wearing Sikhs began to think themselves equals of the beturbaned ruling class, the Mughals. When in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) manifested the Khalsa, he included the kes or hair, and kangha or comb, among the five K`s or mandatory symbols of the faith to be worn by all Sikhs. Turban, being essential to keep the hair neatly tied up, thus became an obligatory item of dress for the Sikh male.

The women continued to keep their hair combed downwards and covered with a flowing scarf, although some of them particularly those joining the fighting Nihang order, also donned turbans like the males. The use of a cap or tarbiish below the turban is not permitted the Sikhs. Instead, a shorter and lighter piece of cloth is normally used as an underturban. The shape or style and colour of the turban allow for individual taste.

However, particular styles and colours have come to be adopted by followers of certain sects. The Nihangs, for instance, carry blue or yellow turbans spun around their heads in a conical shape, whereas the Namdharis invariably wear white in a flat, coiflike style.The newly emerged community of American Sikhs has also taken to white headgear for men as well as for women. The Nirmalas wear ochre and members of the political party, the Akali Dal, generally deep blue or black.

A style becoming popular with the youth is the turban wrapped a bit bulkily, but sprucely, to a sharp, high frontal point, imparting to it a regal look. This came from the court of the Sikh Maharaja of Patiala. Another distinctive mode is marked by the Sikh army soldier`s turban with its neatly arranged emphatic folds. Geography demarcates turban styles loo, more among the common people.

For Sikhs, the use of turban excludes the wearing of a cap. In India, Sikh riders of motor cycles are exempt from wearing crash helmets. Similarly, a Sikh soldier would not wear a steel helmet even under shelling or firing. However, in some foreign countries the compulsion of wearing a turban, like the wearing of long, untrimmed hair, has sometimes led to the Sikhs being placed in a position of conflict with employers or even governments whose rules or laws require the wearing of a cap or helmet.

The turban being religiously obligatory for the Sikhs, a more tolerant view has begun to be taken recently.For example, the Motor Cycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act passed in British Parliament in 1976 exempts “any follower of the Sikh religion while he is wearing a turban” from having to wear a crash helmet. Similarly, the highest court of the country in the United Kingdom, the House of Lords, has ruled that Sikh drivers and conductors of public vehicles are not to be compelled to wear caps. Similarly in Canada in 1986 Sikhs in Metro Toronto Police were permitted to wear turbans while on duty, and since 1990 turbaned Sikhs may join The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

References :

1. Sikh Rahit Maryada. Amritsar, 1964
2. Padam, Piara Singh, Rahitname. Patiala, 1974
3. Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs : Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978