Indian turban is certainly the most eye-catching feature of the Indian man`s ensemble. Evidence of its existence is found in some of the earliest literary sources. It finds mention in the Vedas, where men are said to have draped an unstitched garment, usnisa, elegantly around their shoulders or on their heads.
From the earliest times a hierarchy was established, that specified what type of headgear a person could wear. Although primarily a man`s accessory, both literary and archaeological proof indicates that women also wore headgear. For example, in Vedic literature, there is a reference to Indrani, wife of Indra, the king of the gods of the Hindu pantheon, wearing an usnisa. Some of the oldest sculptures in Sanchi and Bharhut, which date to the first and second centuries A.D., testify to the existence of turbans. They are visible in paintings and find mention in folk songs, proverbs and literature. There exist extensive court records from the later periods, especially from the princely states of Rajasthan, which provide details of their length, material and even actual cost.
In Rajasthan, the turban has gained special importance down the timeline. It has many regional names, such aspagadi, sofa, potia, pag, mandil or shamla and its implication for a man could be equated to the value of an odhna to a woman. The style of tying the turban, the colour, design, material, measurements, embellishments and accessories are dictated by many factors. To the initiated, they convey at a glance, the identity of the wearer. His occupation, community, region, economic and social status are proclaimed by the style of his turban. The Rajasthani turban is usually made of a fine muslin like fabric, which, when folded, is light, yet voluminous and airy at the same time. Cotton is the most preferred fabric for turban, since it has all the desired qualities. It is easily available, abundant, and inexpensive, providing excellent protection from the heat. However, silk may be used occasionally and that too, mainly by the affluent.
The turban is a cloth of varying length and width, usually rectangular or square. The length of a typical turban is 8-9 meters, extending up to 18 meters in some cases. The width also varies, from 15 cm. to 90 cm. The square kind, known as the rumal may be from 1 to 3 meters across. This is a useful size as it is wide enough to be worn on the shoulders or over the head. Often a piece of fabric is draped on the shoulder, and serves a dual purpose of turban and shoulder scarf. The turban is twisted or folded and turned or wound around the head in different ways, creating a range of styles.
The two most commonly worn headgear of Rajasthan besides the turban are the pagadi and the safa. The pagadi or pag is made from narrow width fabric about 15 cm. wide, but is very long, measuring upto 6-7 meters. The safa, on the other hand is created with a moderately broader fabric, approximately 75-90 cm. wide and 6-9 meters long. The safa is shaped by twisting pleats on the right side, generally seven to nine in number, which rise up to form the muth. The left side of the safa is characterized by the placement of up to nine plain pleats. The short bit of fabric that fans out at the top is called a turra. The safa is distinctive for its long trailing end called the poonch or tail, the length of which varies not only from community to community but in accordance with the ensemble. This is seen among the royal families of Rajasthan, where, with a Jodhpur coat, the tail ends at the waist but reaches below the knees when worn with a long coat or achkan.
There are a large number of regional variations as well. The Udaipuri pag is seen to be flat, while the Jaipur pagadi is angular. The shape and size shows tremendous variety depending on the occupation of the wearer and the climatic conditions of the geographic region in which he resides. Desert turbans, like the gol safa, are big and loose. The safa is held such that it can be folded or gathered width-wise in one hand, and then tightly wrapped around the head. Such turbans provide excellent protection to farmers and shepherds who spend long hours in the sun. A tail left hanging from these turbans would be an encumbrance. Thus, a long tail is suspended from the turbans of only those who lead more sedentary lives.
Several innovations were introduced to the turbans from time to time. Within the royal families, the initiative for change was often taken by experts who were especially hired by the royal family to tie turbans for all the male members of the house. Sometimes, innovation could also come from the sovereign himself. For instance, Maharaja Jaswant Singh I of Jodhpur introduced the Jaswant Skaki Pag in the year 1678. The Mughal influence is apparent, which is not .surprising considering that this was at the zenith of the Mughal rule. This style continued to be popular till the early nineteenth century. The fashions introduced by the royal houses did not, however, remain confined to select groups and often filtered down to the masses as well. In Bikaner, the king, Rao Bikaji, bestowed a mothra pagadi made of seven colours on his people. Every community could use it and the pagadi was appropriate for every occasion, whether celebration or bereavement. Similarly, in Jodhpur, Maharaja Gaj Singh II created the panchranga or five-coloured turban, which is now known by the name of Gaji Shahi turban. It has a colourful combination of five colours.
Turbans were decorated according to the wearer`s status. They were dyed either in one colour or with the resist technique. Tie-and- dye produced designs such as leheriya, mothra, and chunri patterns. Special designs like the panchranga (five-coloured), rajashahi (used by kings), gandadar (diagonal zigzag patterns), were made for different occasions and usually for royalty. Sometimes, the turbans were block-printed.
In Rajasthan, the turban is a symbol of a man`s honour. Legends, proverbs, songs, stories and traditions highlight its value. For instance, a turban is never placed on the floor, for that would lower the prestige of the wearer. Similarly, it is a grave insult to step over a turban or take off another man`s turban. The turban has several positive connotations. This can be seen in the tradition of publicly honouring an individual with a turban or a stole. Turbans are also presented at the time of weddings, as a mark of respect to close relatives and the bridegroom and his family.
A turban is so closely identified with the wearer and his standing in the community that it was, and, in some cases, it still is, accepted as collateral on a loan. The understanding is that as the borrower`s reputation is at stake, repayment is guaranteed. Conversely, the act of laying one`s turban at the feet of another symbolizes submission and, therefore, is an expression of submission. In feudal times this was a valid and common practice. The vanquished ruler was required to signify his total surrender to the victor by placing his turban-and with it his honour-at the feet of the conqueror.
The turban could be used to communicate other messages as well. A warrior`s turban carried back from the front, to be handed over to the warrior`s wife signalled that her husband had been killed in battle. Other symbols included tying a pagadi displaying nine folds in all, which meant that the wearer was associated with the royal durbar or court.
Turbans are an integral component of most ceremonies. They help forge relationships between families. An exchange of turbans signifies a long relationship, friendship and brotherhood and or even the end of a feud. On the twelfth day after the death of the head of the family, the Rasam Pagari, or the `ritual of the turban` is observed. The father`s turban is formally passed on to the eldest son, handing over the reigns as it were to the new head of the family. This investiture is a ceremonial event attended by the whole clan. It is also a symbol of responsibility. A father may give it to his grown-up, eldest son, indicating that he wishes to retire from worldly affairs.
The turban possesses denominational characteristics, as well. The community to which he belongs dictates the designs of the turban. For example, a kesariya or saffron safa is the mark of the Baniya community, the Osval and the Maheshvari. Priests prefer red turbans, and interestingly, so do the wandering shepherds, the Rabari. The Bishnoi wear a white safa. Between some tribal and agricultural communities, block-printed turbans are preferred. The Pushkarna Brahmin use a kesariya and red pag tied together during their weddings in a special style, called the khirkiya pag. The higher the social status, the more beautiful and intricate is the turban and its design. The finest bandhani and leheriya were reserved for royalty and special dyers were employed to create them.
Turbans bring colour, to the otherwise, basic clothing of the Rajasthani men. The brightness and colour of the turban is chosen according to the seasons and festivals. In summer, saffron turbans are worn. Green makes an appearance during the monsoon and bright red is sported in winter. During the Teej festival, the trend is towards leheriya or striped multi-coloured turbans. On the occasion of Dusshera, the turbans have floral designs, worked in gold thread. White or yellow turbans are very popular on the festival of Holi. Men of most communities don a red chunri safa for family weddings. Rajasthani men generally prefer bright colours, although khaki or white turbans may mark solemn occasions like funerals.
The turban, especially in the countryside, also has immense practical utility. It protects the wearer from the harsh sun and doubles as a pillow, or a bed sheet. It can become a rope; a bundle of cloth, and a cushion for a load carried on the head, a measuring tape, and a water strainer a storage place and may also be used in lieu of a helmet. So striking is the turban`s appearance that it has come to be recognised universally as the mark of the Indian man. Gaudy, functional or emblematic, truly, turbans are India`s finest innovations in dress.