American Sikh creates documentary, exhibit to explain turban wearing

The World

Gurinder Singh Mandla was at the center of a drive by British Sikhs to secure their right to wear turbans. (Photo by Patrick Cox.)

Ever since six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were killed by a lone gunman, Americans have been asking questions about the Sikh faith.

They’re pretty basic questions. Most non-Sikhs know virtually nothing about Sikhism.

Who are the Sikhs? What are their beliefs? What is the significance of the Sikh turban? In the language of clothing, what is the turban saying?

Some answers come from Britain, where Sikhs are more established than in the United States.

Turbanology: Sikhs Unwrapped is a touring exhibit, a documentary film and website. This video is a sort of introduction.

After you’ve watched that you can follow, if not exactly master, how a Sikh male binds his hair and wraps it in a turban. But that doesn’t explain why the turban is such a potent symbol of Sikh culture.

“We are ordered to wear a turban to show respect to God,” said Gurinder Singh Mandla, a lawyer who practises in Birmingham, home to thousands of British Sikhs. “As we feel that God is omnipresent, we must always have our head covered as a sign of respect and deference.”

Even at night.

"Once I go to bed I will tie a smaller turban because it’s still supposed to be covered, and I think the only time my head is not covered is when I’m having a bath or a shower," he said.

Sikh men, and a few women, have been wearing turbans for centuries. In South Asia, the turban is often a symbol of royalty. So a Sikh will speak of his turban as his crown. He is a prince on Earth — a soldier too, who is commanded to fight injustice.

But when Sikhs began establishing themselves in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, wearing a turban was socially unacceptable.

“There were sacrifices made because there were no jobs available to those who looked so distinctly different,” Mandla said. “Many Sikhs unfortunately disregarded the requirement to wear a turban and cut their hair so that they could gain employment.”

Turbans and School Uniforms

Today, Mandla is a lawyer, with an office across the street from a large Sikh temple. He’s well known in the community, but mainly for something that happened decades ago.

In 1977, Mandla was 12 years old. He passed an entrance exam for a private school in Birmingham. His father, Sewa Singh Mandla, was concerned that other boys at the school would tease Gurinder for wearing a turban. So he went to meet with the headmaster.

“(The headmaster) said, ‘Well, you know the rules of my school is that every child here has got to wear a cap,’” the older Mandla recalled.

The boy would also have to keep his hair short. Mandla replied that it would be against his son’s faith to cut his hair and not wear a turban. He reminded the headmaster that wearing a turban was accepted in the British military.

But it didn’t help. The boy was denied a place at the school.

The Mandla family sued. Under British law, they had to prove Sikhs were a distinct ethnic group.

“To show that you’re an ethnic group, you had to show that you have an identity,” Sewa Singh Mandla said. “You have your own language. I had witnesses say that we had our own script, the Punjabi script.”

The Turban Rights Movement

The Mandlas lost the case in lower court, and then again on appeal. But as the case continued working its way through the legal system, it was energizing Britain’s Sikhs. The refusal of one school to admit a boy wearing a turban was snowballing into something that became known as the turban rights movement.

Finally, in the House of Lords, the Mandlas prevailed.

Jay Singh-Sohal, director of the Turbanology project, was born in 1983, the year the turban rights case was resolved. He says the legal victory “allowed Sikhs to grow up without any kind of fear or pressure on them to conform by cutting their hair or try to fit in.”

The days when Sikhs in Britain felt discriminated against may be over. But many are still choosing not to wear a turban — not just in Britain, but in India too. The usual reason given is that turbans are “old-fashioned”.

Sikhs in America

For Sikhs in the United States, the situation is different, says Singh-Sohal. Sikhs have been the target of violence not just recently in Wisconsin but really since 9/11.

“There have been people killed because of their turbans,” Singh-Sohal said. “Sikhs who’ve been perceived to be Muslims — people who don’t necessarily understand what the turban represents and they’ve attacked these Sikhs and more often than not they’ve been elderly Sikhs as well.”

It’s this confusion over what the turban represents that made Singh-Sohal realize that there was need for Turbanology.

He decided the best way to start unpacking the meaning of the turban, was with the thing itself: a piece of cloth that can be up to 26 feet long.

There is “no right or wrong way” of tying a turban Singh-Sohal.

“A turban’s a very personal thing for a Sikh, and you might develop your own style through months and months of practice or, as I have, through years of wearing one to school and finding out what suits best for you," Singh-Sohal said.

That can mean different colors — Sikhs use a multitude of colors: orange, indigo, burgundy. And the turbans can be pleated, knotted and tied all kinds of ways.

Schoolboy-turned-lawyer Mandla prefers a multiple-pleated style.

“I would like to think is a smarter version, compared to someone from India who may have a much larger turban,” he said. “Going back to the 50s and 60s. you could identify a Sikh from which part of the world he came.”

You have the East African style, Indian Army style, and many more.

Mandla says none of those should be confused with the turbans worn by some Muslims.

“The Islamic style is totally different,” Mandla said. “Usually, the top part of their head is not covered and they have a long trail hanging on the back. But there are variations and differences.”

There’s undoubtedly something of a cultural battle taking place for hearts — and heads, and hair — of the next generation of Sikh men.

Will turban-wearing continue to decline in some places?

Or will ideas like Turbanology help make connections for younger Sikhs, so that the act of wearing a turban remains the most visible expression of the Sikh faith?

The Sikh men behind Turbanology and musicians like Tiger Style — two brothers from Glasgow who combine Bhangra music and hip hop — view the turban as anything but old-fashioned.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.