CAIRO – As more Sikhs are increasingly shunning turbans in favor of fashion, religious leaders in India are organizing turban-tying classes in an effort to save the centuries-old tradition.
"The turban is the Sikh identity,” Avtar Singh, president of the trust that runs Sikhdom's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“It is a sign of our self-respect, our pride," said the bearded 71-year-old.
"No Sikh is complete without his turban,” he said, blaming increasing exposure to western influences for undermining religious traditions among India's 20 million-plus Sikhs.
"We live in a very westernized environment,” he said.
“And these days, Sikh parents don't teach their children enough about our history so they don't adopt our customs.”
Sikhs are typically obliged to wear five symbols at all times, including turbans and no hair cut (for adult males) and iron bracelet; Kara (for women).
According to Sikhism, such symbols are worn for identification and representation of the ideals of Sikhism.
But young Sikh men are now increasingly cutting their hair short and shunning the turban completely in favor of fashion.
It has also been abandoned by Sikh diaspora in countries like the United States, where Sikhs have been attacked over the mistaken belief that the turban marks them as Muslims.
"I cut it because it was more fashionable to keep it short,” said shop worker Manjinder Singh, who cut his hair for the first time seven years ago, when he was 15.
“It's more modern," he told AFP, as he sat down for a trim at a local barber's.
"My parents weren't pleased, but they just gave up trying to change my mind.”
Some other Sikhs have cast aside the turban out of a sense of self-preservation to avoid killings after the assassination of former premier Indira Gandhi in 1984.
Gandhi was killed by Sikh bodyguards, triggering a wave of revenge killings that left thousands dead, forcing many Sikhs to shave their beards and cut their hair to escape the violence.
Jaswinder Singh, who was 15 at the time of the riots, said the experience was a personal turning point that reinforced his faith.
"So many Sikhs died when I was young, it made me realize that I wanted to grow up and do something for my faith, for my community," he told AFP.
Noticing young Sikhs are frequenting hair salons, Singh established in 2003 the Amritsar-based advocate established his "turban pride" movement, including regular tying clinics.
He has also begun classes, popularly known as the “turban clinic”, to teach young Sikhs how to tie the turban.
Sikh boys are expected to tie and wear the turban by the time they reach adolescence, and 12-year-old Upneet Singh began attending the "turban clinic", as the classes in Amritsar are popularly known, about two weeks ago.
"I go to a religious school where the turban is compulsory at my age, so I come here to learn how to tie it," said 12-year-old Upneet Singh, who attends the “turban clinic”.
Singh says his classes, held six days a week, are often full and have been a major success, paving the way for around 50 similar clinics to be set up by other Sikhs in Punjab.
In addition, he organizes turban-tying competitions, turban-themed poetry readings, and a beauty contest called "Mr Singh International" open only to Sikhs who don the headgear.
He also stages mass turban-tying ceremonies known as "dastar bandi", traditionally held to mark male Sikhs' coming of age.
Although the dastar bandi used to be a key event in every Sikh male's life, its popularity has waned as families have abandoned the tradition.
Under Singh's scheme, dozens of boys are initiated in monthly ceremonies during which priests and other religious figures tightly wrap turbans around their heads to the sounds of the congregation chanting.
In a bid to ensure that the boys do not shed the turban for more exciting options as they get older, Singh has developed a computer program -- Smart Turban 1.0 -- which showcases 60 different ways to tie a turban.
"If a Sikh youth loses the turban today, then maybe tomorrow he will abandon the religion all together, that is what I am afraid of," he told AFP.
"That's why we need to save the turban. This is not just about the turban, it is about what it means to be a Sikh."
Singh said he sympathized with Sikhs living overseas who face the challenge of assimilation and feel that wearing the turban leaves them vulnerable to possible hate crimes.
"I understand why members of the Sikh diaspora would worry and think about giving up the turban, out of fear that they would be attacked, but I hope they don't do that."Historically, Sikhs have been attacked many times before and whenever we are attacked we unite and we become stronger, our faith becomes stronger.”