The turban, the traditional headdress of India, is often an object of confusion. As previously noted in our study of the Arabian headdress known as the keffiyeh, the two are often confused. And while they may have a shared origin, and both are made from cloth these two are very distinct.
Turbans can be found in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and parts of the Swahili Coast.
Throughout the Indian subcontinent for centuries the wearing of turbans has been common among Sikhs, who refer to it as a Dastar. In certain other faith communities, the headgear also served as a religious observance, including among Muslims, who regard turban-wearing as Sunnah Mu’akkadah (Confirmed Tradition).
In India the turban is referred to as a pagri, which also indicates that it is traditionally tied. There are several styles, and here is where the confusion really begins. In the Indian Army following the Indian Mutiny all Muslim and Sikh sepoys and sowars – infantry and cavalry respectively – wore a turban but the styles differed, while various Hindus also wore turbans, typically following the Muslim style.
Generally there are about 12 key variations in the type of headdress that were worn by the Indian Army during the period of the British Raj.
Major R. Money Barnes wrote in his book Military Uniforms of Britain & The Empire, published by Seeley Service & Company (1960):
“The winding of military puggarees had become a skilled accomplishment and, throughout the Indian Army, there must have been scores of different styles, each instantly recognizable by those who knew them. The variety of patterns in one regiment was due to the class-company system, which dated from after the mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857.”
What is notable is that even to those who didn’t know a particular unit could easily tell a Muslim (Mussalmans in the period vernacular) from a Sikh. As noted in the table above, Muslims wore a Khulla (kulla) – a cone of sorts, which the turban’s pagri was wrapped around. A shamla provided additional identification for the unit.
The original Khulla’s were made of wicker or straw covered in cloth and were thus offered a reasonable hard type of cap. Into the 20th century these were produced solely in cloth, typically khaki, but versions in gray and blue can also be found.
Sikhs soldiers wore – and continue to wear – pagri that is wrapped around the head without a khulla. In both World War I and World War II it was common for these soldiers to forego wearing a steel helmet as a result.
By the start of World War II typically only Sikhs continued the tradition of wearing turbans into combat, although turbans of various styles are used in both India and Pakistan today.
Gallery of Turban Development