Half of Hindus (52%) and Muslims (50%) and a majority of Christians (61%), for instance, say they generally wear a religious pendant. And most Sikh men and women wear a traditional metal bracelet, known as a kara, and follow the distinctive Sikh practice of keeping their hair long.
Many of these practices are gender-specific. The vast majority of Muslim men say they wear a skullcap (84%), and most also have a beard (64%). Similarly, Sikh men largely have beards (83%) and wear turbans (69%).
Among women, wearing a head covering outside the home is a common practice among Muslims (89%), Sikhs (86%) and Hindus (59%). The practice of covering the head outside the home is less widespread among Buddhist (30%) and Christian (21%) women. Nearly two-thirds of Muslim women in India (64%) say they wear a burqa. A burqa is a covering for the whole body, including the face and head, but interviewers did not define the term for the respondents, leaving the exact definition up to their own understanding.
Overwhelming majorities of Hindu (84%) and Buddhist (78%) women say they wear a bindi, a forehead marking, and at least some Muslim (18%), Christian (22%) and Sikh (29%) women also say they do this, even though the practice is not typically considered part of these religious groups’ traditions. Meanwhile, a slim majority of Hindu men wear a tilak (53%), another type of forehead marking often made in red.21
In general, Indians with higher religious observance are more likely to follow these practices related to clothing and appearance. For example, Hindu men who say religion is very important in their lives are more likely than other Hindu men to wear a tilak (56% vs. 42%).
Religious appearances also differ by region: Hindu women in the South are significantly less likely than Hindu women nationally to say they cover their heads outside of the home (22% vs. 59%). And wearing a hijab (a garment that covers the hair only) is more common among Southern Indian Muslim women than Muslim women elsewhere in the country: About one-in-four Muslim women in the South (23%) say they wear a hijab, compared with single-digit percentages elsewhere in the country.
Hindu respondents in the Northeastern region are generally the least likely to follow customary appearance practices. Hindu women in the Northeast are significantly less likely than Hindu women nationally to wear a bindi (59% vs. 84%), or to cover their head (29% vs. 59%). The same pattern applies to men: Hindu men in the region are less likely than Hindu men elsewhere to wear a tilak (21% in Northeast, 53% nationally).
Among Hindus, caste is also an important marker of religious clothing. Brahmin (priestly caste) men are more inclined than others to say they wear a tilak (76%, compared with 53% among Hindu men overall) and a janeu, a sacred white thread worn around the chest, usually after an initiation ceremony (56% vs. 18%).
Half or more of Hindus, Muslims and Christians wear religious pendants
The survey asked whether respondents generally wear a religious pendant, such as an amulet, cross, image or symbol of God. Around half of all Indian adults (51%) say they generally wear a religious pendant. Responses vary by religious group; for example, roughly half of Hindus (52%) and Muslims (50%) wear them, compared with much smaller shares of Jains (24%) and Buddhists (17%). Christians are the most likely to say they wear religious pendants (61%).
Hindus who say religion is very important in their personal lives are slightly more likely than other Hindus to say they wear a religious pendant (54% vs. 46%). And Hindus in urban areas are a bit less likely than rural Hindus to say they do this (48% vs. 54%).
Regionally, a minority of Hindus in the West (40%) and Northeast (34%) say they generally wear a religious pendant, compared with 52% of Hindus nationally.
Most Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women cover their heads outside the home
Vast majorities of Hindu (84%) and Buddhist (78%) women say they generally wear a bindi – a decorative mark worn on the part of the forehead traditionally believed to be the location of “the third eye,” but also worn as an adornment or a sign of marriage. (The survey did not include enough interviews with Jain women to separately analyze their practices, but Jain women are known to wear bindis as well.) Smaller shares of Muslim (18%), Christian (22%) and Sikh (29%) women also say they wear a bindi.
Hindu women of different age groups, education levels and degrees of religious commitment are all highly likely to wear a bindi, but Hindu women in the Northeast are significantly less likely to wear a bindi than those elsewhere in India. Among Muslims, meanwhile, women who live in the Eastern region are more likely than those in other parts of India to say they wear a bindi (31% vs. 18% nationally).
A majority of Indian women overall also say they keep the practice of covering their head outside their home, including especially high shares of Muslim (89%) and Sikh women (86%) who do this. A smaller majority of Hindu women (59%) cover their heads. The practice is less common among Christians (21%) and Buddhists (30%).
Younger Hindu women (ages 18 to 34) are less likely than their elders to cover their heads (55% vs. 63%). Among Hindus, the practice of covering the head also is closely associated with socioeconomic status: Hindu women with college degrees are significantly less likely than others to wear a head covering in public (38% vs. 61%). A majority of rural women (66%) say they keep the practice, compared with 45% among urban Hindu women. Similarly, lower-caste women are more likely than those belonging to General Category castes to say they cover their heads (62% vs. 51%).
Hindu women in the Northeast (29%) and South (22%) are least inclined to wear a head covering, while Hindu women in the Northern (82%) and Central (84%) regions are the most likely to cover their heads.
Muslim women who say they cover their heads were further asked what type of head covering they generally use – hijab, niqab or burqa. (The terms were not defined for respondents.) A majority of all Muslim women in India (64%) say they generally wear a burqa, which covers the entire face. Smaller shares say they wear a niqab (12%) or a hijab (8%).
Muslim women who have faced recent financial hardship (i.e., did not have enough money to pay for food, medicine or housing in the last year) are less likely than other women to wear a burqa (57% vs. 69%) and more likely to wear a niqab (17% vs. 8%).
The South differs from the rest of India in that Muslim women there are more likely to wear a hijab (23%) and less likely to weak a niqab (1%) than those in several other regions. For example, in the Western region, 15% wear a niqab and just 4% say they wear a hijab.
Here are answers to the a few questions asked about the turban.
1. Why do you wear a turban?
We were way ahead of the hipster man-bun curve.
While the turban is a common and fashionable item of clothing for many cultures, for Sikhs, it represents our faith. When the Sikh faith was developing from the 15th through 18th centuries in South Asia, the turban was worn only by the higher classes and elites of society. However, a core teaching of the Sikh faith was that all people are equal — there are no high or low among us. As such, it was mandated that all Sikhs initiated into the faith cover our heads with a turban, thereby signifying the equal status among the faith’s followers. Because it’s considered respectful for Sikhs to keep our heads covered when in public and in our religious spaces, the turban provides that function as well. It is a core piece of my identity.
Another identifying article of faith for Sikhs is maintaining uncut hair by both women and men. Sikhs are not to cut hair from any part of our bodies, which is why as a Sikh man I have a long beard and long hair. This is an expression of our acceptance God’s will. My turban becomes the covering for my long hair that I keep in a bun at the top of my head. You see, we were way ahead of the hipster man-bun curve.
2. Do women wear turbans, too?
Among Sikhs, the turban has traditionally been worn by men, while women cover their heads with a long scarf called a chunni or dupatta. However, many Sikh women have adopted the turban as their head covering as well.
3. But I have a friend who is a Sikh and doesn’t wear a turban. Why not?
Like any group, there is a range of practice. Many followers of the faith don’t wear turbans or keep their hair, but still legitimately follow and identify with the faith.
4. Do the colors of the turban mean anything?
I have more than 20 different turbans, each a different color.
There aren’t any religious meanings associated with a given turban color. A person can wear any color turban they like — and even prints! Some colors like orange, blue, and white are traditionally worn during religious celebrations or occasions. Red is traditionally worn during Sikh weddings.
One of my main decision points during my morning routine is to determine what color turban I’m going to wear, and how that will coordinate with my shirt, pants, jacket and shoes. I have more than 20 different turbans, each a different color. I’m particularly proud of the four shades of pink that are quick to brighten up a gloomy day for my coworkers. My color choice is a complicated algorithm that usually results in the wrong choice, but luckily, you all don’t notice or you don’t want to hurt my feelings by pointing it out, bless your hearts.
5. Does it go on like a hat?
The turban isn’t a hat per se, and we don’t wear it like a hat. The Sikh turban is a long piece of cotton, typically up to six yards long and one to two yards wide. Your mileage may vary. Mine sure does.
I tend to wear shorter, narrower lengths of fabric, which I re-tie every day. To put it on, I fold the cloth several times (a process called making the pooni) into a single layer that I then wrap concentrically around my head in four layers (or a larh), but more often Sikhs wrap turbans around five or more times. It takes me a precious five or so minutes to tie my turban — precious because I usually run late to wherever I’m going. You can watch a similar process (at your own risk) here.
6. How many kinds of turbans are there?
There are several different general styles of turbans that people wear, and within each style there’s a lot of leeway according to their person’s preferences. A dumalla is a larger, rounder turban. There is a smaller round turban tied by some Sikh men. Sikh women who tie turbans tend to wear round ones as well. A parna is a smaller round turban often tied using a thicker printed/checkered cloth.
I tend to tie what’s most commonly referred to as the paghri or pagh, which is more angular in shape (like this one or this one). Within this style, there are regional differences — British Sikhs and African Sikhs tend to wear smaller, sharper turbans (using starched cloth) compared to North American Sikhs, whose turbans are generally softer. Indian Sikhs will often tie larger turbans. Apparently, size matters.
7. Where do you get your turbans?
I typically get my turbans from South Asian fabric shops, online turban retailers, or at Sikh festivals. The cost can vary ranging anywhere from $3 to $10 a yard depending on the where I buy from, the type of cotton blend, and any print or design. As for care, many people will hand wash their turbans, though I put mine in the washing machine set on the delicate cycle and hang to dry.
8. Were you born with a turban on?
No, and my mom couldn’t be happier about that.
When I was a kid and my hair got long enough, my mother would tie on me (until I could) what is known as a patka — basically, a rectangular cloth tied around my head like a bandana that covered my bun of hair. Most boys will wear a patka until they learn how to tie the full turban, and many will instead have a handkerchief just covering their hair bun on the top of their heads. Young boys will wear a patka or a handkerchief since they’re easy to tie and can stand up to some roughhousing. Sikh men will also often wear a patka when playing sports.
There’s actually a ceremony in which we celebrate when a child ties their first full turban. We call the ceremony dastaar bandi (meaning “turban tying,” coincidentally enough). It’s often characterized as a “coming of age” ceremony, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. I had my ceremony when I was maybe four years old — I was an overachiever back then — but I didn’t start tying my full turban until I reached high school 12 years later.
9. Do you wear it to sleep or shower?
Flowing water can be fatal to a tied turban.
Nope. Sikhs are supposed to keep their heads covered when in public. Accordingly, I don’t wear mine when I sleep and not in the shower, especially since it’s not waterproof.
Actually, flowing water can be fatal to a tied turban. We can be rather hydrophobic when it rains. I will say, however, that my turban does make for a convenient pillow during air travel.
10. Can I touch your turban?
Well, I’m glad you asked. I don’t know — can you?
Personally, it’s a bit of a sensitive topic. Like many Sikh children, I was bullied quite a bit in school, and my patka was the target of my harassers. Bullies would try to pull it off, or just try to mess with it. This was obviously very humiliating to me as a boy, given the sacred nature of our turbans.
As an adult, I still get asked this from time to time. Because the turban is a religious article of faith, it’s held in sacred esteem by Sikhs. It’s offensive if our turbans are touched or handled without our permission while we’re wearing them. But, if the person asking is respectful and genuine, then I’ll let someone touch it so they can get a sense of it. Play your cards right and I can even tie one on you. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean we have to get engaged or anything.