Why Do Sikhs Wear Turbans?

The religiously mandated dress code maintains and honors their hair

Sikh Couple With Turbans

Harleen Kaur

The turban is a distinct aspect of Sikh identity, part of Sikhism's traditional attire and martial history. The turban has both practical and spiritual significance. During battle, the turban served as a flexible, breathable helmet protecting against arrows, bullets, maces, spears, and swords. It also kept a Sikh's long hair out of his eyes and away from an enemy's grasp. Modern proponents of the turban argue that it provides better protection than a motorcycle helmet.

Sikh Dress Code

All Sikhs must follow a code of conduct, which includes the hair and head. 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. A Sikh woman may wear a turban or a traditional headscarf. A woman may also wear a scarf over a turban. Normally turbans are removed only in the most intimate circumstances, such as bathing the head or washing the hair.

Spiritual Significance of Covering Hair

Sikhs must keep hair in its natural, unaltered state, known as kes. In addition to maintaining their hair, 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 into contact with pollutants, such as tobacco smoke. Sikh code of conduct stipulates abstaining from using tobacco.

When a Sikh becomes initiated as Khalsa, or "pure," amrit nectar is sprinkled on the kes, and Khalsa initiates consider the kes to be sacred thereafter. Confining the kes within the turban frees the wearer from the social pressures of fashion dictates and allows attention to focus inwardly on worshiping the divine rather than outwardly on superficiality.

Turbans to Be Tied Daily

Tying a turban is an event that occurs every morning in the life of a Sikh. Whenever the turban is removed, it must be unwrapped carefully so that it never touches the floor, then 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 and beard. The hair also may be combed and the turban retied after work, before evening prayers, or before bedtime. Prior to tying a turban:

  • The kanga, a wooden comb, is used to detangle the kes, and oil is applied 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 and 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. 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

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 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. Patterned or tie-dyed turbans are worn sometimes simply for fun. A woman’s headscarf, or veil, is traditionally coordinated with whatever she is ​wearing and may be a solid color or 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
  • Voilea: A lightweight weave
  • Rubia: A medium weight dense weave

Turban styles include:

  • Domalla: A double-length turban of 10 or more yards or meters
  • Pagriv: A 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 and head
  • Fifty: A half yard or meter worn beneath a turban, usually in contrasting or decorative colors

Scarf styles worn by Sikh women as head covers include:

  • Chunni: A sheer, lightweight veil of up to two and a half yards, or meters, usually one solid color and may have embroidery
  • Dupatta: A double-wide decorative veil of up to two and a half yards, or meters, often embroidered on fabric of contrasting colors
  • Rumal: Any square or triangular cloth worn as a head cover

Turban Adornments

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

  • A turban pin, including a khanda crest made of simple steel, sarbloh iron covered with chrome, or precious metals and encrusted with gems
  • Various representations of Shastar weaponry, especially throwing rings
  • Lengths of beaded meditation mala prayer beads
  • Chainmail secured with steel cable
  • One or more miniature kirpans, or ceremonial swords