Dastar, the Punjab word for turban, is a point of pride for every Sikh who decides to wear one. While many outside the Sikh community see one every day, not everyone understands the symbolic importance of the turban.
Like the tie in western society, the turban conveys dignity and respect, and its significance ranges from the formal act of gift-giving to the intimate ritual of tying one. Unlike the tie, the turban has a history dating back thousands of years, but it, too, serves a practical purpose.
Since a Khalsa Sikh (one who is ready to become orthodox) grows out his hair and beard, he wears a turban to keep the hair clean and orderly, and to remind the wearer of a central tenet of Sikhism.
Because turbans were traditionally only worn by the upper classes in India’s caste system, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, encouraged all his followers to wear turbans to eliminate this oppressive system. It is a constant reminder that every man is free.
Likewise, because Indians’ last names reflected their caste, all Sikhs were encouraged to have the same last name — Singh, which means lion, or Kaur, which means lioness.
The Sikh faith is at its very core a democratic and decentralized religion, but the Sikh community in Queens has recently begun to mobilize as political force. As Sikhs set down roots in Queens, several activists have been organizing their community to advocate for its unique needs. They are attempting to find common allies in their demands for better schools, public safety and a direct line of communication with the government.