Kids Corner


Iowa Sikh Boys Celebrate a Rite of Passage





J.J. Singh Kapur’s head jerks back and forth as his grandfather meticulously wraps a 6-foot-long saffron-colored cloth around his head.

The wiry 13-year-old stands proudly under a bright blue tapestry hanging from the ceiling of the gurdwara in Johnston (Des Moines, Iowa, USA).

His grandfather, with the help of another gurdwara elder, puts the finishing touches on the teenager’s first turban.

J.J. cracks a toothy smile. Today he is a man.

J.J. was one of five Des Moines-area boys to participate in a turban-tying ceremony Sunday at the gurdwara. The ceremony, called dastar bandi, is a rite of passage for Sikh boys between the ages of 11 and 17. The boys have learned to tie their own turbans and will now be considered men in their family.

“I like to think of it as the equivalent of a bar mitzvah in the Jewish faith,” said J.J., an eighth-grader-to-be at Stilwell Junior High in West Des Moines.

The passage into manhood in the Sikh faith is no small commitment. Men must wear a turban any time they leave home and can never cut their hair or beards -- and that’s not to mention the extra chores around the house.

J.J.‘s father, Gurwinder Singh, has a beard that reaches his belt buckle; he keeps it dressed up by tucking it under his chin. J.J. can boast little more than peach fuzz now, but said he plans to adhere to the Sikh discipline.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “Sikhism is not easy -- well, no religion is.”

Sunday marked the first turban tying at the gurdwara, which opened in April.

More than ever, it is difficult to get boys interested in dastar bandi, Gurwinder Singh said. Committing to wearing a turban and keeping one’s hair and beard unshorn for life is not easy, especially in America, he said.

While Sikhs have always stood out to some degree here, the September 11 attacks made practicing their religion more difficult, he said. Many people conflate Islam with Sikhism, though the two religions are not related.

Sandeep Singh Dhingra, 17, who was also given his first turban Sunday, said he was bullied in middle school for wearing a patka -- an under turban worn by youngsters until they graduate to a turban -- until Gurwinder Singh gave a presentation at the school about how to tie a turban. Nowadays, he said, most of his classmates at Johnston High School are familiar with Sikhism.

A 600-year-old monotheistic faith founded in Punjab, Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion. Sikhs follow the teachings of their Gurus (Teachers) and believe in holistic life experiences and equality between men and women, Gurwinder Singh said.

For many Americans, the term ‘Sikh’ is a reminder of a massacre last August in which six Sikh worshipers at a Wisconsin gurdwara were gunned down by a white supremacist.

“In a really sad way, that helped grow awareness about Sikhism,” J.J. said. “It’s our duty now to help spread awareness about our faith.”

There are about 70 Sikh families in the Des Moines area between the gurdwara in Johnston and one in West Des Moines, Gurwinder Singh explained.

Some Johnston residents complained when construction of the gurdwara began, but neighbors have otherwise been welcoming, he said.

About 100 people sat cross-legged on the floor watching Sunday’s ceremony. Midday light poured in the picture windows, lighting up the all-white interior of the gurdwara. Members sang to the tune of a harmonium, an instrument similar to an accordion played on the ground.

The five boys prepared to live out their commitments.

“This ceremony is a dominant milestone, and it’s hard to live up to,” J.J. said. “It’s a challenge, but I like a challenge.”

[Courtesy: Des Moines Register. Edited for]
July 1, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 01, 2013, 3:31 PM.

I don't know if there was ever a prediction that Sikhi will grow, flourish and propagate in the diaspora. We rarely hear of anything like this emanating from Punjab or India. What a lovely celebration. Congratulations to all those participating. Each one looks like a prince.

2: Satpal Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 07, 2013, 4:41 PM.

Gurwinder, one of our very own from Singapore, keeping the faith alive and continuing in a distant land. Great on you, Vinder ... Guru aseesaa(n) bakshey!

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