Amritsar, India — The day Jugraj Singh, at age 14, abandoned his turban and had a lifetime’s growth of hair cut off, he collected the tresses from the barbershop floor and packed them into a plastic bag. Then he threw the bag into a river flowing out of Amritsar, the spiritual home of the Sikhs.
“It was my parents’ idea to float it down the river,” said Singh, now an 18-year-old business student. “They thought it would be a display of respect to the hair I had cut off. For me, it wasn’t an emotional moment.”
Like many young Sikhs, he found the turban a bother. It got in the way when he took judo classes. Washing his long hair was time-consuming, as was the morning ritual of winding seven yards of cloth around his head. It was hot and uncomfortable.
“In the end,” he said, “it was a question of fashion. I felt smarter without it.”
Sikh spiritual leaders express dismay at the rapidity with which a new generation of young men are trimming their hair and abandoning the turban, the most conspicuous emblem of the Sikh faith. While there are no hard data, Jaswinder Singh, a lawyer and leader of a “turban pride” movement, estimates that half of India’s Sikh men now forgo the turban, compared with just 10 percent a couple of decades ago.
“The problem is very severe,” he said from the basement headquarters of his organization, Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj, or Army of God, here in Amritsar, in Punjab, the northern state where most of India’s 18 million Sikhs are based. “We are going to have to battle hard to turn back the tide. Otherwise, another 20 years will pass and India won’t have any more Sikhs in turbans.”
Since 1699, about two centuries after the founding of the religion, Sikh leaders prohibited their members from cutting their hair, saying long hair would be a symbol of Sikh pride. The turban was conceived to manage the long hair and intended to make Sikhs easily identifiable in a crowd.
But these days, not every young Sikh wants to stand out so boldly.
The dwindling numbers of turban wearers reflects less a loss of spirituality than encroaching Westernization and the accelerating pace of Indian life, Jaswinder Singh said.
He puts the start of rapid decline at the mid-1990s, as India began liberalizing its economy, more people began traveling abroad, and satellite television arrived in the villages of Punjab. Working mothers are too rushed to help their sons master the skill of wrapping a turban, he said, and increasingly they just shrug and let them cut their hair.
“Everyone is working harder to buy themselves bigger cars,” he said. “They don’t have time to teach their children about the Sikh heroes. Boys take film stars as their idols instead.”
Some abandoned the turban in self-defense after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard in 1984, leading to the massacre of thousands of Sikhs across India. But globalization probably has had a greater impact.
“There is this terrible, misplaced urge to merge with the rest of the world,” said Patwant Singh, a historian and author of “The Sikhs” (John Murray, 1999).
In addition, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Sikhs traveling abroad have complained of being mistaken for turban-wearing Taliban and harassed by airport security guards. Outside the Army of God offices, there is a turban clinic offering free classes for boys — one of a series of Sikh revival programs. Standing before full-length mirrors, an instructor shows teenage boys in baggy jeans and sports shoes how to twist the cloth into neatly layered folds on one side and smooth the pleats into sharp lines with a hooked silver pin, which is then concealed beneath the hair at the back.
A “Smart Turban 1.0” CD-ROM offers step-by-step instructions to create fashionable looks and guides new turban wearers on how to choose the most flattering style according to face shape.
To promote the turban as a fashion item, Sikh leaders have also started holding Mr. Singh International pageants. Contestants are judged by looks, moral character, personality, knowledge of Sikh history and principles, and turban tying skills. The sixth World Turban Day will be celebrated on April 13 with a march through Amritsar by thousands of turban-wearing Sikhs.
India has no shortage of powerful Sikh role models, like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Lt. Gen. Joginder Jaswant Singh, the army chief of staff. But they are hardly style icons, and their prominence has done nothing to stem the younger generation’s disaffection with the turban.
For that, turban promoters turn to the Punjabi pop star Pammi Bai. Grinning, his canary-yellow turban at a jaunty angle, he sings of the glory of wearing a turban in a single released as part of the campaign.
“I try my level best to gear up the youngsters,” Bai said in an interview, absent-mindedly pulling a pin from his turban to dig out the battery from his mobile phone. “They’ve adopted bad European habits: fast food, pubs and clubs. They want to show they are modern. They are forgetting their own culture.” The album containing the turban song has sold 100,000 copies so far.
Are those efforts working?
Not according to Namrata Saluja, manager of the Color Lounge hairdressers in central Amritsar, which every week turns away young Sikh men who want their long hair cut off. “Kids come in groups,” she said. “There’s a lot of peer pressure. But we won’t un-turban them here. We don’t want to be responsible for that upheaval in their families.”
Instead, the barbers advise the boys to cut their own hair at home and come back for styling.
“It’s usually college-going students who are more worried about looking good than about their spiritual identity,” Saluja said. “It’s a thrilling moment for them. You can see a flush on their faces. Taking eight or nine meters of cloth off your head releases a certain amount of pressure.”
But while it is good for business, as a religious Sikh she feels ambivalent about the trend. “At the end of the day, it is a bit hurtful,” she said. “It means one more identifiable Sikh is missing.”
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