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Indian Headgears and their Cultural Significance

Culture can be manifested in a variety of ways- as rituals, traditional practices, languages, and material objects such as clothes and crafts.

Material culture refers to art, architecture, objects, food, clothes, and accessories that visually characterize a particular cultural practice. For instance, on seeing the Taj Mahal, one is instantly reminded of the Mughals and therefore, their culture. Similarly, clothes and accessories worn by any particular community define their culture. A kimono stands for Japanese culture, a kilt for Scottish heritage, and a Sarafan for Russian tradition. In India, the saree is worn by most females regardless of the religious community or state they belong to.

Many a time, cultures begin to be solely identified by their tangible elements such as clothes, architecture, literature, and food. While sociologists and historians have done a good job at curating a list of clothes, food items, monuments, and literature pertaining to almost every Indian culture, less is known about different headgear and their vitality to the Indian community that sports it. The following sections will describe the cultural significance of unique headgear donned by different communities in India.


Image Source: Unsplash

The Pagadi/ Dastar is an essential element of the Sikh identity. All Sikh men who have been initiated into the community through the Amritdhari ceremony must compulsorily wear the traditional pagadi around their heads. It is also worn by Sikh men and women to cover their “kesh”- a significant tenet of their religion that requires them to grow their hair long and uncut. The traditional turban can be bought and worn in a myriad of colours. However, most local Sikh communities mandate the colour of turbans that their male members can wear. Similarly, restrictions are placed on the manner in which the turban is to be tied/wrapped around the head.

Popular culture has been quick to identify turbans as a visual representation of the Sikh culture and heritage. While one must agree that turbans represent the pride, honour, faithfulness, and gratitude that Sikhs experience as being a part of the community, they must not be mistaken as the sole identifier of Sikh men. Some choose not to wear the turban but that does not imply that they are not proud Sikhs.

Also See: Guru Nanak Dev: The First Sikh Guru


Image Source: Unsplash

Traditional Rajasthani communities wear the Safa or Rajasthani pagadi which was originally donned by Rajput kings during the seventh century. For a Rajasthani man, the colourful silk/cotton turban is a symbol of pride and honour. The turban not only has a symbolic representation but also protects a person from the severe desert heat of Rajasthan. The safa can be found in a variety of colourful shades and designs. In fact, different colours and designs are worn for different occasions. For instance, guests wear saffron during weddings to symbolize the vibrancy of the occasion and brown/dull blue shades during a funeral to observe solemnity.

Men can wear the safas in a number of different ways. Each local community in Rajasthan has claimed its unique way of tying the safa. The Bishnoi tribe exclusively wears white turbans, communities in Jaisalmer wear a bhatti, and the native population in Jodhpur dons the Jodhpuri pagadi. Multicolor safas are usually worn by small farmers, shepherds, and grazers all over Rajasthan.


Image by Santosh Wadghule via Flickr

The pheta is yet another variation of the turban usually worn by Marathi men. Men do not wear this headgear on a daily basis but only during a select few celebrations, occasions or festivals. Similar to the Rajasthani safa, colours play an important role in suggesting the grandeur and nature of the celebration. Phetas are usually handmade and can measure up to 6 metres in size. They are worn over the head in a manner that not only covers it entirely but also creates a frill design at the top. Different regions in Maharashtra such as Pune and Kolhapur have evolved their own technique of wearing the pheta. The tradition of wearing it began during the Peshwa rule when the pheta symbolised one’s elite caste/cultural status. Now, it is representative of the pride and happiness of being a part of the Marathi community.


Image by dwanjabi via Creative Commons

Topi is a small cloth-based headgear donned by Muslims in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is usually worn by Muslim men during namaz prayers on Friday but can be worn otherwise too. The small, flat cap can be found in different colours and shades, however, the most popular one is white. Besides being worn to cover their head before Allah, the topi signifies modesty or humility. Not wearing any covering before God is considered to be vain and prideful. For many converted Muslims wearing the topi is a compulsory practice that affirms their faith and religious beliefs. It is also believed that Prophet Muhammad mandated his followers to cover their heads by wearing the topi, and therefore, a huge majority of Muslims wear it every day.


Jawaharlal Nehru wearing Gandhi Topi by Dave Davis

The Gandhi topi is a favourite amongst politicians and aspiring government officials in India. Popularized by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, the topi symbolizes non-violence, perseverance, and resilience against enemy forces. It has two sharp ends that point outwards, and the cap is small, so it covers only the midsection of one’s head.

The reason behind naming it the Gandhi topi is an interesting one. On a visit to the nawab of Rampur in 1919, Gandhi was required to cover his head before meeting the royal. However, Gandhiji forgot to bring along any headgear, and his close aides failed to find a last-minute accessory in the markets of Rampur. In such a situation, Abadi Begum, the mother of the Ali brothers who pioneered the Khilafat movement, sewed Gandhi a new cap. From then onwards, that style of cap began to be known as the Gandhi topi and stood for his ideologies. It was popularized by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who could not be spotted without it. Several other Indian politicians such as Anna Hazare, Rahul Gandhi, and Arvind Kejriwal have also donned the Gandhi topi.


Image by Hari Prasad Nadig

The Mysore peta is a decorative headgear originally worn by members of the Wodeyar dynasty. This headgear is made out of bright colours in either silk or cotton and adorned with zari and decorative patterns on top. It is a simple and tight head covering that covers almost the entire head and tucks the hair within it. It was mostly worn by men of the royal lineage who believed that the peta symbolized power and nobility. Today, the peta is worn on traditional occasions and most importantly, by the bridegroom during a marriage. Several politicians and famous personalities who are welcomed by the Government of Karnataka wear this headgear too. The Mysore peta is one of the most popular Indian headgear and is, therefore, an integral element of Mysorean culture.

India’s culture is multi-faceted, and this fact is represented not only through the different rituals and traditions practiced throughout the country but also through various clothes and headgear adorned by communities across it. While clothes and accessories are often dismissed as the less important part of a culture, they play an equally important role in its spread as well as its representation in popular media. The size, cloth, colour, and purpose of wear of headgear are indicative of the culture’s ideology, the core of thinking, origin, history, and evolution. Often, material culture becomes the sole identifier of a cultural community, and therefore, the most popular distinguishing feature that entices people to know more about it.



Prerana Thakur

Pratha Content Writer

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