Sikh fortress turban
Punjab, India, late 19th century
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This Sikh fortress turban is a rare object of which only five exist in Britain. This particular one is wrapped around a wooden cone and was made for a ceremonial purpose rather than every day wear.
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded by Guru Nanak in AD 1469. The key principles of the faith include the belief in a Universal god and the equality of all human beings. The turban has always been integral to Sikh tradition, representing dedication to the faith and providing protection for the uncut hair.
This turban is known as a Dastar Boonga or turban fortress, which is a type distinct to the Sikh warrior tradition. Its tall conical structure is very much like a tower or fortress and made it effective in battle, protecting both the hair and head from sword blows.
It is tied by entwining the long hair with the turban cloth which can be up to 20 yards long. Ornaments such as steel quoits and small daggers were secured to it by winding long lengths of plaited steel around the turban to provide further protection.
The Dastaar Boonga was and continues to be worn by the Akali-Nihangs.
Religious persecution under the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) in India led to the development of a Sikh martial tradition. The Akalis (Immortals) were the original Sikh warriors raised by the sixth Sikh Guru (Guru Har Gobind). The Akali often, referred to as Akali-Nihang, is a dedicated believer in Akal, meaning the timeless one (God).
The primary function of the Akali army was to defend Sikhism against the then oppressive Mughal Empire. Sikhs were encouraged to live a knowledgeable, wise and spiritual life while engaging in warfare to defend and protect the oppressed. This concept of ‘Saint Soldier’ remains the underlying principle of Sikh warriors.
Akal-Nihangs wore dark blue clothes, iron bangles around their wrists and steel quoits in their tall conical blue turbans, together with swords, daggers and tiger claws. Today the Akali Nihangs mostly exist in areas of the Punjab and still observe the original Sikh martial traditions.
The ornaments on this turban include a modified Rattray Battalion badge, which suggests it may have associations with the British Army battalion raised in January 1856 by Captain Thomas Rattray.
It has been in the British Museum collection since the early twentieth century, and in 1900 was displayed at the Banqueting House, Westminster as part of a ‘Relics of Old Wars’ exhibition.
Turbans such as this were collected by generals of the British army in the late nineteenth century as examples of Indian art and culture and would have been specially made for the British market.