The turban theory: Exploring India’s vibrant headgear tradition

A salt and pepper chirwa beard, upturned moustaches, a blazing red safa with an elaborate diamond and emerald sarpech sitting atop grandly was how I recalled my great grandfather from his portrait. The safa or turban was perhaps the most potent sign of authority. The symbol of dignity, social status, prestige, an indication of one’s regional and religious origins or mere protection from the elements, turbans in India are more than mere headgear. It covers the entire spectrum of colours from white to black with reds and pinks and greens and yellows thrown in for good measure!
Vibrant and joyful, dignified and sedate or bubbling with energy, cutting across the entire country, headgears are akin to saris. Just as saris are region specific, so are turbans. And sadly enough, just as the sari is fast disappearing from the urban areas as daily wear, being reduced as it is to being a ceremonial outfit, so are turbans, especially from the urban scenario. A pity really, for there is much history, romance and sensuality associated with both pieces of cloth which replete with much character in its making, tying and wearing.
Last week, I was visiting relatives in Chandni Chowk, when my cousin happened to mention that a neighbour of his has this amazing collection of turbans from across the country. So, off we went to see it. And what a collection — fit for a museum! But, he still wants to keep it private for a bit more. So, I told him that I will write about it without mentioning his name. He has kept the collection geographical: From Leh and Ladakh, in the extreme north, are fur-lined leather caps worn with sections hanging on either side of the head, protecting the wearer from extreme cold. Embellished with turquoise, corals and zari cloth running through the centre, they are as beautiful as they are utilitarian. In Kashmir, the dark or white skull caps made of wool or cotton, worn by the Muslim majority is an indication of their religious status and of course a protection against the cold weather. The Hindu minority there is more likely to seen sporting the karkul caps made of the soft skin of the karkul goats.
Cross into Punjab and the Sikh majority has a million ways of tying the turban even since Guru Gobind Singh ordained that the Sikhs cover their heads with a turban. Be it the stiff starched turbans worn by the jat sikhs embellished with abrak and shiny cellophane paper either in bright plain colours and loud and joyful prints to the bright kesri and royal blue worn by the Nihang Sikhs who embellish it with a large metal ornament known as the chakra. The granthis of the gurdwaras too wear the same shade of royal blue as Guru Gobind Singh. The namdhari Sikhs however, wear only sparkling white turbans and tie them almost rectangularly. The royals used to embellish their turbans with jewel encrusted kalgis.
Travelling further, the Thar desert of Rajasthan is home to some of the most vibrant and colourful pugrees or safas. Royal families from Marwar to Mewar and all the other families thrown in for good measure, have their own peculiar ways of tying the safas and even now retain the professional safas tiers. Here too, the material is muslin but, the safas might stretch to as long as 12 to 15 metres in some regions with a kalgi and sarpech pinned on for ceremonial occasions.
Next door in Himachal, it is the Kullu cap that holds sway. Natty and sleek, it is a no-fuss round cap that fits the top of the head snugly. The front section is embellished with either a plain velvet band in colours of maroon, green or navy or a myriad vibrant hues in geometrical designs of the so-called Kullu style of weaving, the origins of which could well be in Kinnaur.
In Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow in the post Wajid Ali Shah era, the delicate white muslin topis embellished with the white chikankari embroidery, were stylised into symbols of sophistication. From Agra and to an extent Bhopal, came the heavy velvet zardozi caps, which are now used more by qawwali singers in Hindi cinema!
Lower on the map, Gujarat in the West too throbs with pulsating, rich colours. Here too, the red bandhni is an ever-popular option for the turban. Neighbouring Maharashtra has some really interesting pugrees in fluorescent pinks, yellows and greens. In contemporary times, following Bapu’s call in the pre-independence era, the Gandhi cap is still sported all over the state with much enthusiasm.
Madhya Pradesh pulls out all the stops when it comes to sheer variety. Headgear here start to get far less bulky as one travels further down south — starting with the royal family of Gwalior, the Scindias’. They stick to the triangular manner of tying the turban in shades of red with pearl tassels on either side. Tribals from the Chattisgarh region or Bastar use the completely basic coarse towel that is more a protection from the merciless sun than a turban in the formal sense of the term. It is also an indication of their economic status, when lesser and coarser cloth is used.
In Karnataka, perhaps the Coorgs have the most spectacular headgear in cream with a broad band of stately gold on either fold. Stiff and pre-tied, these turbans are meant to be sported with the formal, ceremonial long achkan-like dark coats with a dashing cummerbund in red and gold. Then who can forget the cream and gold turban of the great scientist Visvesariyah?
In the north-east turbans are indicative of the people’s tribal origins and status. In Manipur, the pung-cholum dancers wear stark white turbans tied in a round fashion while performing the stylised pung or oblong drum dance. In Assam, Meghlalaya and Arunachal, wide-brimmed hats woven from fine bamboo rule the roost. Sometimes, these are decorated with shiny paper for ceremonial purposes. The Naga tribes have their own head gear wherein the initiated can even name the tribes by merely looking at the headgear! In Sikkim, Tibetian and Buddhist influences and of course the weather, has resulted in fur-lined caps covering the ears like warm tongues, similar to the ones worn in Leh and Ladakh.
With such a wonderful tradition and distillation of centuries behind it, headgear is fast receding into becoming a ceremonial relic of the past, thanks to the growing urbanisation. One only wishes that it doesn’t go the sari or the kimono way when it is relegated to the dustbins of history and not the pulsating and living tradition it is.

Alka Raghuvanshi is an art writer, curator and artist and can be contacted on alkaraghuvanshi@yahoo.com

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