Canadian tribute to the art of the perfect turban

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In a banqueting hall in British Columbia, hundreds watched enthralled as the fierce competitors faced off to tie the perfect Sikh turban and pay tribute to the colorful headgear.

"A good turban is all about practice, neatness and experience," said Ravi Sharma, engrossed in his art as about 2,000 people looked on.

Some 75 competitors were taking part in the eighth annual turban competition, the largest in North America.

The colors were bright, loud and the designs intricate as the competitors, all Sikhs, either from or descended from India's northern Punjab state, whipped up a variety of turban styles.

Sharma, a 35-year-old welder, says he can tie about six turban styles, including those for Sikhs in the military and another for performers.

"The cloth measures about five to six meters and it should never hit the ground (out of respect for what it represents). The judges are looking at speed, neatness of the turban and if the hair is covered. It takes me about six or seven minutes."

Sharma was competing in the 31-45 years category. Despite hoping to improve on his bronze medal last year, he again finished third this year, behind winner Gurpreet Singh Tung, a 32-year-old truck driver originally from the Punjab village of Tugal near Ludhiana, and runner-up Omandeep Singh.

While children ran around the vast hall, a troupe of sari-clad women and girls performed a traditional dance.

Harjit Singh Gill, one of the organizers sporting a saffron turban, a favored color for celebrations, said the event has grown rapidly since its first year when 400 people attended.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks when turban-wearers faced some suspicion, the contest was created to promote a positive awareness of the headgear worn by millions of Sikhs, Muslims and others worldwide.

Gill called the turban a symbol of the Sikh faith, representing honor and pride. He added Sikhs used to wear it battle, where it was used to protect the head, both in India as well as in the western Canadian province, home to about 250,000 South Asians.

In Surrey, the largest municipality in the Greater Vancouver district, the 2006 census listed 107,810 Indo-Canadians.

Over the years Sikhs have legally won the right to be exempt from wearing a motorcycle helmet in favor of a turban, and are also contesting that they have to wear them in some industrial jobs.

Local constable Baltej Dhillon became the first turbaned East Indian to join the national police force in 1990, earning the moniker "Turbo Cop."

Sukh Dhaliwal, a Liberal member of Parliament, says the traditional employment of the Indian community, such as farming and lumber mills, has changed as young East Indians, first-generation Canadians, enter every profession.

While Sikhs have been in Canada for over 100 years, he said it was the championing of a multicultural society by former prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau that opened the door for the mass Indian migration that started in the early 1970s.

Today, Canada is the second most favored destination for Indian migrants after Britain. "This is a very welcoming nation where every individual has equal opportunity," said Dhaliwal, who emigrated from the Punjab in 1984.

"They come here with hope, faith. From that faith, hope we know that everything becomes possible for them so that is a success story."

Dhaliwal, who owns a land surveying engineering company, says Indian migrants have done particularly well in Surrey, where he says 52 percent of the property is owned by people of Indian origin.

"If you look at Indian history, and the history of India as well, Sikhs have always gone to underdeveloped parts of the country. They have worked very hard, and in helping each other, like a bank, that has helped open opportunities."

Raghbir Bhinder is among those who have prospered in Canada. After living in Slough, England, for nearly 30 years, he moved to Surrey in 1996 and now has four insurance offices and 50 staff.

The native of Jallander in the Punjab said despite his success, his children have all rejected wearing a turban.

He says his own hair is about two feet long and has never been cut, according to his faith, although he admits to snipping his beard, something that should also be left natural.

"My kids grew up in England. Sometimes they don't speak the Indian language, so it is hard to explain to them the traditions," he said.

"They respect (the turban), but they are sorry they can't do it. Young kids nowadays are more interested in shaving their head."