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Indian Headdress

Indian headdresses, with the passage of time, have changed their shape, dimension and name but they have always remained at the core of out cultural impulse.

The impulse to ornament and cover the head dated back to the Vedic era. Still functional, the pugree is more than a mere headgear, a rudimentary and functional object to protect the wearer from the scorching heat or the biting cold, dust and snow storms. It is a live example of unity in diversity. Headdresses are more than a customary identification of a region or a clan. It is the symbol of honour, pride and prestige.

Culturally speaking Guru Govind Singh gave a new meaning and power to the pugree (turban) when he florified its wearers. It was unique gesture to rekindle the lost glory of the heritage of pugree was sign of pride and prestige for martyrs who sacrificed their lives for their motherland. In religious functions throughout the headdress plays a ritualistic role.

No traditional marriage in India can be seen where the groom or the bride does not sport some kind of headgear. To enhance socio-cultural bonds the exchange of pugrees is a very common phenomenon, especially in marriages. The headdress heritage is in vogue all the time – at the time of birth or death and even beyond wherein the eldest son takes over the reign of the family after the demise of the family head in a ceremony called rasam pugree.

In Rajasthan the pugree is of various shapes which symbolize the caste and social status of the wearer. Middle class people sport cotton pugrees known as chira or phenta.

The colours of headdresses varied with the change of season and they were laden with symbolic meaning. Today these symbolisms have passed into oblivion but the fact remains that if somebody wants to surrender socially, he places his pugree at the feet of the other – a symbol of complete submission.

The same symbol of pugree with its multi-dimensional social ethos merged into political symbolism during India’s freedom struggle. It played a much more important role during India’s struggle for independence. It was the symbol of Indian pride. When the Britishers were trying hard to penetrate the Indian socio-political field, the Indians were nurturing anti-European feelings. Once Gandhiji remarked, “people these days dislike anything that has a European flavour.” Boycott and a bonfire of European clothes gained currency in the early 19th century and it kindled a new spirit, a new hope of pan-Indianness. As a reaction to the Western cultural onslaught people started giving symbolic importance to Indian headgears. It became a symbol of protest against the British subjugation. Our freedom struggle is a live example of the tens of thousands of martyrs who sported their own specific pugree or cap to demonstrate their pride for their motherland.

In the context of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre one can find a picture of the notorious ‘Crawling Lane’ where a Punjabi elderman is forced to crawl under the threat of the bayonet but even then his traditional headdress is held high in silent symbolic protest.

In the twentieth century the Gandhi topi (cap) gained the status of unchallenged symbolism of freedom struggle. Emma Tarlo observed that Gandhi wanted a cap suitable for Indian conditions. He did not realize that it would become a symbol of opposition to the British. In the book, Clothing Matters, Emma Tarlo further quoted Gandhiji: “…thinking over all these various type of headgear, I came to the conclusion that the Kashmiri cap is the best. It is light as well elegent; it is easy to make; it can be folded which makes it easily portable…which colour would be most suitable for the cap? Not a single colour appealed to me. So I fixed upon white… The cap being the folding sort, it would be quite easy to press after washing and iron out a fresh, clean, smooth cap! What could be better or more becoming? So having thought this out I made this cap.”

The Gandhi topi became the conscious creation of headdress to provide a pan-Indian symbol. This symbol and its ethos were echoed by all the top leaders – Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr. Saiffudin Kichlu, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Shastri and other innumerable leaders. Emulating the origin of the Gandhi topi, Maulana Azad and Sheikh Abdullah always sported the traditional Kashmiri topi – the symbol of their association with fellow brethren. Even a multitude of the masses who participated in the freedom struggle sported this Gandhi topi when trying to unfurl the tricolor.

If one looks back it becomes crystal clear now the headdress in its different dimensions along with its unfathomable power worked wonders towards creating a close association between the leaders and masses. Spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda and poets like Rabindranath Tagore or Subramaniam Bharati all sported a typical kind of headdress to demonstrate Indianness with it manifold diversities. Likewise, be it the Gandhi topi or the conical Bangalore headdress prevalent in Gujarat or warp up turbans of different kinds, they created a pulsation of pan-Indianness.