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Sikh wearing a turban and uncut beard
Picture by Paul Schmid / The Seattle Times

The turban or "pagri" often shortened to "pag" or "dastar" are different words in various dialect for the same article. All these words refer to the garment worn by both men and women to cover their heads. It is a headdress consisting of a long scarf-like single piece of cloth wound round the head or sometimes an inner "hat" or patka. Traditionally in India, the turban was only worn by men of high status in society; men of low status or of lower castes were not allowed or could not afford to wear a turban.

Although the keeping of unshorn hair was mandated by Guru Gobind Singh as one of the Five K's or five articles of faith, it has long been closely associated with Sikhism since the very beginning of Sikhi in 1469. Sikhism is the only religion in the world in which wearing a turban is mandatory for all adult males. Vast majority of people who wear turbans in the Western countries are Sikhs. The Sikh pagdi (ਪਗੜੀ) is also called dastaar (ਦਸਤਾਰ), which is a more respectful word in Punjabi for the turban.

Sikhs and the turban go together

Sikhs are famous for their many and distinctive turbans. Traditionally, the turban represents respectability, and has long been an item once reserved for nobility only. During the Mughal domination of India, only the Muslims were allowed to wear a turban. All non-muslims were strictly barred from wearing a pagri.

Guru Gobind Singh, in defiance of this infringement by the Mughals asked all of his Sikhs to wear the turban. This was to be worn in recognition of the high moral standards that he had charted for his Khalsa followers. He wanted his Khalsa to be different and to be determined "to stand out from the rest of the world" and to follow the unique path that had been set out by the Sikh Gurus. Thus, a turbaned Sikh has always stood out from the crowd, as the Guru intended; for he wanted his 'Saint-Soldiers' to not only be easily recognizable, but easily found as well.

More appropriately known in the Panjab as a dastaar, the Sikh turban is an article of faith which was made mandatory by the founder of the Khalsa. All baptised male Sikhs are required to wear a Dastaar. Though not required to wear a turban many Sikh Kaurs (women) also choose to wear a turban. For the Khalsa, the turban is not to be regarded as merely an item of cultural paraphernalia.

Importance of the turban in Sikhism

When a Sikh man or woman dons a turban, the turban ceases to be just a band of cloth; for it becomes one and the same with the Sikh's head. The turban, as well as the four other articles of faith worn by Sikhs, has an immense spiritual and temporal significance. While the symbolism associated with wearing a turban are many — sovereignty, dedication, self-respect, courage and piety, but!, the main reason that Sikhs wear a turban is to show--their love, obedience and respect for the founder of the Khalsa Guru Gobind Singh.

"The turban is our Guru's gift to us. It is how we crown ourselves as the Singhs and Kaurs who sit on the throne of commitment to our own higher consciousness. For men and women alike, this projective identity conveys royalty, grace, and uniqueness. It is a signal to others that we live in the image of Infinity and are dedicated to serving all. The turban doesn't represent anything except complete commitment. When you choose to stand out by tying your turban, you stand fearlessly as one single person standing out from six billion people. It is a most outstanding act." quoted from Sikhnet.

Sikh men commonly wear a peaked turban that serves partly to cover their long hair, which is never cut out of respect for God's creation. Devout Sikhs also do not cut their beards.

Water painting of a Sikh Woman with a Turban and chuunee. Picture by RM Singh, Tribune

Historical Background

The turban has been worn by people for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, the turban was worn as an ornamental head dress. They called it ‘pjr’, from which is derived the word ‘pugree’, so commonly used in India. Kohanim (priests) in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem wore turbans; they go back at least as far as biblical times!

In the Bible, referring to the high priest, it says, "He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on." (Leviticus 16:4)

The turban has been common throughout Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa for thousands of years. Today, Muslim, Sikh and other men often wear turbans to fulfil religious requirements to cover their heads; traditionally, Hindu men often wear them as well.

Turban is and has been an inseparable part of a Sikh's life for centuries. Since about 1500 and the time of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, Sikhs have been wearing the turban. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru says,

"Kangha dono vakt kar, paag chune kar bandhai."

Translation: "Comb your hair twice a day and tie your turban carefully, turn by turn."

Several ancient Sikh documents refer to the order of Guru Gobind Singh about wearing the five Ks. Bhai Rattan Singh Bhangu is one of the most famous ancient Sikh historians. He is the author of "Sri Gur Panth Parkash" which he wrote almost two centuries ago. He writes,

"Doi vele utth bandhyo dastare, pahar aatth rakhyo shastar sambhare | . . . Kesan ki kijo pritpal, nah(i) ustran se katyo vaal |"

Translation: "Tie your turban twice a day and carefully wear weapons 24 hours a day....

Take good care of your hair. Do not cut your hair."

("Sri Gur Granth Parkash" by Bhai Rattan Singh Bhangu, page 78)

The Sikh Gurus sought to end all caste distinctions and vehemently opposed stratification of society by any means. They diligently worked to create an egalitarian society dedicated to justice and equality. The turban is certainly a gift of love from the founders of the Sikh religion and is symbolic of sovereignty that is of Divine concession.

According to Sirdar Kapur Singh, a Sikh theologian and statesman, "When asked by Captain Murray, the British Charge-de-affairs at Ludhiana in about 1830, for the captain's gallant mind was then wholly preoccupied with the Doctrine of Legitimacy, recently evolved or rediscovered by European statesmen at the Congress at Vienna, as to from what source the Sikhs derived their claim to earthly sovereignty, for the rights of treaty or lawful succession they had none; Bhai Rattan Singh Bhangu [a Sikh historian], replied promptly, 'The Sikhs' right to earthly sovereignty is based on the Will of God as authenticated by the Guru, and therefore, other inferior sanctions are unnecessary.'" (Parasaraprasna, by Kapur Singh, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, 1989, p. 130-131.)

“Having met the Guru, I have put on a tall plumed Turban”. (GGS – Page 74) “Charming are our unshorn Hair, with a Turban on head”. (GGS – Page 659)

“Let living in His presence, with mind rid of impurities be your discipline. Keep the God-given body intact and with a Turban donned on your head”. (GGS–Page 1084)

(*1 Refer to Dr. Trilochan Singh's "Biography of Guru Nanak Dev.")

Holiness and Spirituality

Sikh man with a Turban in the British Police. Picture by RM Singh, Tribune

Turban is a symbol of spirituality and holiness in Sikhism. When Guru Amar Das left for heavenly abode, his elder son Pirthi Chand wore a special turban which is usually born by an elder son when his father passes away. At that time Guru Arjan Dev was honored with the turban of Guruship.

Marne di pag Pirthiye badhi. Guriyaee pag Arjan Ladhi.

("Partakh Hari," Jiwni Guru Arjan Dev Ji, by Principal Satbir Singh)

Guru Angad Dev ji honored Guru Amar Das ji with a turban (Siropa) when he was made the Guru. Similarly, the Turban (Dastaar) has remained the key aspect in a Sikh's honour. Those who have selflessly served the community are honoured with Turbans.

"Tthande khuhu naike pag visar(i) aya sir(i) nangai
Ghar vich ranna(n) kamlia(n) dhussi liti dekh(i) kudhange "
(Vara(n) Bhai Gurdas, Var 32, pauri 19)
"A person, after taking a bath at the well during winter time, forgot his turban at the well and came home bareheaded.
When the women saw him at home without a turban, they thought someone had died and they started to cry."

There are many Punjabi idioms and proverbs that describe how important a turban is in one's life.

Pag Vatauni (Exchange of Turban)

People in Punjab have been and still do exchange turbans with closest friends. Once they exchange turbans they become friends for life and forge a permanent relationship. They take a solemn pledge to share their joys and sorrows under all circumstances. Exchanging turbans is a glue that can bind two individuals or familes together for generations.

Turban as a Symbol of Responsibility

People who have lived in India would know the turban tying ceremony known as Rasam Pagri (Turban Tying Ceremony). This ceremony takes place once a man passes away and his oldest son takes over the family responsibilities by tying his turban in front of a large gathering. It signifies that now he has shouldered the responsibility of his father and he is the head of the family.

Turban and Sikh Military Life

Turban of Sikh Soldier in the Indian President's personal guard. Picture by RM Singh, Tribune

The Turban is a symbol of honor and self-respect. The Sikh Army fought their last major battle against the British in 1845. All the Sikh soldiers and generals were wearing turbans at that time. Shah Muhammad, a great Punjabi poet and historian, who witnessed that war, writes:

"Pishe baitth sardara(n) Gurmatta kita, Koi akal da karo ilaj yaro. Sherh burshia(n) di sade pesh ayee, Pag dahrhia(n) di rakho laaj yaro."
"The Sikh chiefs took a unanimous and firm religious decision (Gurmatta), that they should have sense enough to judge the tenor of Maharani Jinda(n) Kaur and the crafty Britishers. They said that they were facing a very shrewed enemy and it was high time for them to save their honor because they were wearing turbans and beards." (both symbols of self-respect).

Sikh soldiers refused to wear helmets during World War I and World War II. They fought instead with turbans on their heads. A Sikh (Khalsa) is supposed to be fearless. Wearing a helmet is admitting fear of death. Many Sikhs received the Victoria Cross, often postumusly awarded, which is the most prestigeous gallantry award of the British army.

Many Sikhs refused to remove their turban even in jails. Bhai Randhir Singh, a widely respected Sikh preacher, scholar and a freedom fighter had to undergo a fast to win his right to wear his turban while in prison.

High Moral Values

Sikh history is full of facts that men and women of other faiths such as Hindus and Muslims felt safe when there was a Sikh around them. They felt secure from invaders and other people when Khalsa was around. The woman or the oppressed would feel safe and sound under the protection of "khalsa". It was a common saying in Punjab:

"Aye nihang, booha khol de nishang"
"The Nihangs (Sikhs) are at the door. Dear woman! go ahead open the door without any fear whatsoever."

In the ancient times, the Sikh men had to fight tough battles with the rulers. They moved from village to village at night. Sometimes they had to hide. Women folks had a very high degree of trust in the Nihangs, Sikhs who can be clearly identified by their turban and beard. Women knew that the Nihang Sikhs were of high moral character and never mistreated or molested women. So they fed them and helped them in whatever way they could.

Symbol of Zeal and Courage

Maharaja Dalip Singh Picture from Sikh-Info.com

There are many references in the Sikh history that describe how Guru Gobind Singh personally tied beautiful dumalas (turbans) on the heads of both his elder sons Baba Ajit Singh and Baba Jujhar Singh and how he personally gave them arms, decorated them like bridegrooms, and sent them to the battlefield at Chamkaur Sahib where they both received martyrdom. When the Sikhs go to an agitation (morcha), they usually wear a safforn color turban which is a symbol of sacrifice and martyrdom. When Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwalle courted his arrest, he wore a safforn color turban. Beauty:

"khoob teri pagri, meethae tere bolo"

In the ancient Egyptian civilization turban was an ornamental head dress. They called it pjr from which is perhaps derived the word "pugree" commonly used in India and other Asian countries.

Kingly Turban

Sign of Sardari.

It was meant for only kings. Miniorities were not allowed to wear turban and kirpan. "och dumalra" Most Respectful

Bare head is not considered appropriate as per gurbani: "ud ud ravaa jhaate paaye, vekhe log hasae ghar jaaye"


It provides Sikhs a unique identity. You will see only sikhs wearing turban in western countries.

If a Sikhs likes to become one with his/her Guru, he/she must look like a Guru (wear a turban). Guru Gobind Singh has said, "Khalsa mero roop hai khaas. Khalse me hau karo niwas."

Translation: Khalsa (Sikh) is a true picture of mine. I live in a Khalsa. According to the historical accounts, Guru Gobind Singh tied almost 18 inches high dumala (turban) just before he left for heavenly abode.

Article by Piara Singh Sambhi

Poster issued by US Department Of Justice to explain Sikh head coverings

TURBAN derived from the ancient Persian word dulband through the Turkish tarbush, is a long scarf wrapped around the head. It is a common head-dress for men in Middle Eastern and South-Asian countries. As a form of head-dress, 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 Sanchi 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, literally to maintain the honour of the turban, means to behave in a socially proper manner; pagg lahuna, literally to knock off the turban, means to insult; and pag vatauna, literally to exchange turbans, signifies the transformation of friendship into brotherhood vowing fraternal love and loyalty. Until recent times wearing of a head-dress, 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, 1084). By the time of the Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), turban wearing Sikhs began to think themselves equals of the be turbaned ruling class, the Mughals. When in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) manifested the Khalsa; he included the kesh 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 tarbush below the turban is not permitted the Sikhs. Instead, a shorter and lighter piece of cloth is normally used as an under-turban. 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, coif-like 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 too, more among the common people.

For Sikhs, the use of turban excludes the wearing of a cap. In India, Sikh riders of motorcycles 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).


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

Above adapted from article By Piara Singh Sambhi of Global Sikh Studies

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