When Nanak was in his 50s, he'd gathered around him a number of followers. They called themselves sikhs, a name that came from the word for "student" or "disciple" in Punjabi, the Sanskrit dialect spoken in that part of northern India. These Sikhs referred to Nanak as their guru, an honorific title meaning "teacher." They lived together as a community and adhered to three central practices that Guru Nanak required of his followers: service to the poor, communal meals, and communal worship. The Sikh faith had elements that both Hindus and Muslims could recognize and understand: monotheism, the belief that God is a single, indivisible, eternal entity; and reincarnation, the belief that good or bad actions determine whether upon death a person's soul either returns to this world to improve itself or unites with God in peace and joy forever.
Nine other gurus followed Guru Nanak. Over the course of 239 years they elaborated and refined the Sikh faith's tenets and practices. Although Sikhism attracted many tens of thousands of converts, its popularity was less than universal. With great violence, Hindu and Muslim forces suppressed the upstart religion. Sikh history is in many ways a history of martyrdom and defensive battle. By the time the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, died in 1708, Sikhs had chosen as their slogan Ek Onkar, meaning "There is one God," and as their symbol, the khanda, an emblem of three swords, which represent Sikh determination to resist all forms of tyranny and oppression.
It was the Sikhs' experience as an oppressed religious minority that prompted their adoption of a number of outward signs of their faith. The thinking went something like this: if we as Sikhs truly believe in the equality of all people and religions and in the right of all people to worship God as they choose, then we should set ourselves apart as examples of what we believe. Sikh men and women would never cut their hair. Sikh men would never cut their beards, and, in a demonstration of egalitarianism, all Sikh men would wear a turban, a symbol of religious and aristocratic privilege in Muslim society.
Three hundred years later, these outward signs of Sikh distinctiveness still attract attention.
"My father wears a turban, and my brother, when he was young, had what we call the joora, the topknot of hair that he covered with a kind of mini-turban, a traditional scarf that we call a patka," Gagandeep Kaur told me. "So I remember things that happened, and I never told my father and brother because I did not want them to be aware of it. I remember, for example, people walking by us and snickering. I felt very protective of my brother. He was a little younger than I was. So for me, recognition of being a Sikh meant that I was different, predominantly because of the hair. At that time, I was at such a young age that the only difference I could see was the hair, that we didn't cut our hair. My father kept his beard long. He kept his hair long and wore a turban. My brother kept his hair, wore it on the top in a joora, and I had long braids. And I remember, even with my long braids, boys would tease me, especially with the hairstyles my mom did in the '70s. You know, I had this little hairstyle where she did two braids and rolled them. The boys would pull up my braids and say, 'You look like a dog.'
"And if you weren't being teased for being a Sikh and for your hair, then you were being teased for having darker skin. We have darker skin.
"We were living in Queens, New York. My brother was a fully recognizable Sikh boy, and in the public school, he was having quite a lot of problems. My mother decided that she wanted us to go to private school, so she enrolled us in a Roman Catholic school called St. Joan of Arc. You know, every class had 90 to 100 students. But it was like a family. The teachers were extraordinary. We participated in everything, even religion class, and we attended church services, but we did not take Communion and we did not go to confession. Other than that, we did everything. And it was wonderful. However, we moved to Long Island and went to a public high school. My brother had a very tough transition. He was the first recognizable Sikh in the school, and because of his long hair, his joora, they couldn't tell if he was a boy or a girl. He had to prove his masculinity continuously. He had two fights for which he was suspended because some boy had touched his joora. When he got to high school and became a star athlete on the track field, he never had to prove himself after that."
I told Kaur that I, too, had noticed the different ways Sikh males covered their heads. I'd seen different colors and styles of patka and turban.
"The color of a turban or a patka doesn't mean anything. It's just a kind of self-expression, a matter of personal style. Some guys like bright colors, other guys like pastels. But the shape of a turban can tell you something about where a Sikh is from. For example, Sikhs from Punjab, the Indian state where most Sikhs live, have flatter, more rounded turbans. But following England's colonization of India, Sikhs began migrating throughout the British Empire. So different Sikh communities started to develop turban styles of their own. A more narrow turban that comes to a pronounced point at the front is typical of Sikhs from Africa. Since my family is from India, my father and brother wear turbans that are more round. Because my brother is a body-builder and has huge arms and shoulders, he wears a particularly large and round turban that's in proportion to his body size.
"In the past decade or so, many Sikh women, especially in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, have started wearing turbans. There's nothing in the Sikh religion that requires women to wear a turban or that forbids them from wearing one if they want to. It's a question of preference and style. And I think there's also an element of being secure in the religion and wanting to express this security and confidence in an outward way."