Why Do Sikhs Wear Turbans?

Religiously Mandated Dress Code Maintains and Honors Hair

Sikh Couple With Turbans
Photo © [Courtesy Harleen Kaur]

Why Is so Much Emphasis Put on Sikh Turbans?

The turban is a distinctly visible aspect of Sikh identity. The Sikh turban is a distinct part of Sikhism's traditional attire and martial history. The turban has both spiritual and practical significance. During battle, the turban traditionally served as a flexible and breathable helmet that provided protection from arrows, bullets, mace, spears, and swords. As a practical device, the turban kept a Sikh's long hair out of his eyes and away from an enemy's grasp during wartime skirmishes. Modern day proponents of the turban argue that it provides better protection than a motorcycle helmet.

What Is the Sikh Religiously Mandated Dress Code?

Sikhism has a code of conduct all Sikhs are meant to follow. A Sikh is expected to keep all hair intact and the head covered. The rule of dress for every Sikh man is to wear a turban. The Sikh woman may wear a turban or elect instead to wear a kind of traditional headscarf. A woman may also wear a scarf over a turban if she so desires. A Sikh accustomed to wearing a turban feels naked without it. Normally turbans are only removed in the most intimate of circumstances, such as when bathing the head or washing the hair.

What Is the Spiritual Significance of Keeping Hair Covered?

Sikhs are meant to keep hair in its natural unaltered state. In addition to maintaining long hair themselves, Sikh parents are to keep their children’s hair intact from birth onward. Covering long hair with a turban helps to protect it from becoming tangled, or coming in contact with pollutants. when a Sikh becomes initiated as Khalsa, amrit nectar is sprinkled directly on the kes (hair). The Khalsa initiates consider the kes to be sacred thereafter. The Sikh code of conduct forbids dishonoring any hair. The baptized Sikh has specific mandatory requirements which are to be adhered to. The code of conduct also stipulates abstaining from the use of tobacco and advises Sikhs not to keep company with users of tobacco. Honoring the code means that kes ought never to come into contact with tobacco smoke. Covering hair with a protective turban is a practical preventative in an uncontrolled public environment where tobacco smoke may be present.

What Does it Mean to Dishonor the Kes?

Confining the kes within the turban frees the wearer from the social pressures of following fickle fashion dictates, and allows the attention to focus inwardly on the worship of the divine, rather than outwardly on superficial material entrapments. A Sikh believes that hair kept intact in its natural state honors the inherent physical creative process intended by the creator. The Sikh code of conduct stipulates that hair growing from the scalp, all facial hair including eyebrows lashes, hair on the lip, nose, ears, cheeks chin, and every hair growing on any part of the body are to remain unaltered. No modification of nature should occur to dishonor kes such as:

  • Removal by any method including but not limited to:
    • Cutting
    • Tweezing
    • Waxing
    • Threading
    • Using a depilatory
    • Use of and electric razor or other removal device
  • Coloring including but not limited to:
    • Bleaching
    • Dyeing or using Henna
    • Temporary Rinses
    • Highlighting or Tinting
  • Altering the hair's normal texture using heat or chemical treatments including but not limited to:
    • Use of a curling iron or hot rollers
    • Straightening with chemical relaxer
    • Curling with a permanent wave
  • Using wigs including but not limited to:
    • Extensions
    • Hair pieces
    • Toupees

Does a Turban Have to Be Tied Every Day?

Tying a turban is an event which occurs every morning in the life of a Sikh. Whenever the turban is removed it is to be unwrapped carefully so that it never touches the floor, shaken out, stretched and folded neatly so as to be ready for the next use. The daily routine includes the care and cleanliness of the kes (hair) and beard. In addition to the morning schedule, the hair may be combed and the turban retied after work, before evening prayers, or before bedtime. Many Sikhs wash their hair before morning meditation on a daily basis rinsing it with clear water or shampooing. Prior to tying a turban:

  • The kanga, a wooden comb, is used to detangle the kes, and apply oil if desired.
  • The kes is twisted into a joora, a knot, or coil atop the head.
  • The kanga helps to secure the joora and is kept with the hair at all times.
  • The keski, a protective length of cloth, is used by some Sikhs to cover and twist the joora, binding the hair atop the head.

Sikh men or women who wear a keski often tie a second turban or domalla, over the keski. A chunni is a long lightweight scarf worn by many Sikh women to cover their hair which may also be used to adorn a keski or a turban. Many Sikh children wear a square piece of turban called a patka tied over their joora. They may have their kes braided before being bound up so as to keep it from becoming tangled should their turban come off during play, or while asleep. Because the turban and keski help with the management of long hair, at bedtime an Amritdhari, or initiated Sikh, may choose to:

  • Sleep with a small turban tied over the joora.
  • Drape a small turban or keski over their head to cover the joora.
  • Wear the kes loose and draped with a small turban or keski.
  • Braid the kes and drape the head with a small turban or keski.

Why Are There Different Turban Styles?

Style and color may reflect association with a particular group of Sikhs, a personal religious conviction, or even fashion. Turbans are available in many different styles, fabrics, and colors. A longer turban is usually worn in a formal setting such as a business occasion, a wedding, a religious program, or celebration, and may be color coordinated to the occasion. Popular traditional colors of religious significance are blue, black, white, and orange. Red is often worn for weddings. Even patterned or tie-dyed turbans are worn sometimes simply for fun. A woman’s head scarf, or veil, is traditionally coordinated with whatever she happens to be ​wearing and may be a solid color or have a variety of contrasting colors. Many have decorative embroidery.

Turbans also come in a variety of fabrics from lightweight to heavy such as:

  • Mal Mal - A very lightweight fine fabric.
  • Voile - A lightweight weave.
  • Rubia - A medium weight dense weave.

Turban styles include but are not limited to:

  • Domalla - Double length turban of 10 or more yards or meters.
  • Pagri - Double width turban of five to six yards or meters.
  • Dastar - A single turban of four to six yards or meters.
  • Keski - A short turban of two or more yards or meters.
  • Patka - A square of half to one yard or meter, tied over the joora (top knot) and head.
  • Fifty - A half yard or meter worn beneath turban usually in contrasting or decorative color.

Scarf Styles worn by Sikh women as head covers include but are not limited to:

  • Chunni - A sheer lightweight veil of up to two and half yards, or meters, usually one solid color and may or may not have embroidery.
  • Dupatta - A double wide decorative veil of up to two and half yards, or meters, often embroidered on fabric of contrasting colors.
  • Rumal - Any square, or triangular cloth worn as a head cover.

Adornment and Embellishment of the Turban

Turbans may be adorned and embellished, either simply or elaborately, to reflect Sikhism's martial tradition:

  • Turban pin may be a khanda crest made of simple steel, sarbloh iron covered with chrome, or precious metals and encrusted with gems.
  • Various representations of Shastar weaponry, most especially Chakar throwing rings.
  • Lengths of beaded meditation prayer bead malas.
  • Chain mail secured with steel cable. 
  • One or more miniature kirpans.