When I think of Sikhism, I instinctively visualise turbans and long beards, but I’ve
never considered the meaning behind a Sikh’s outward appearance. The Dastar
(Turban) and the Kesh (uncut hair) make up one of The Five K’s; the five articles
of faith which Khalsa Sikhs wear at all times. A Khalsa Sikh is someone who has
taken the Amrit, the Sikh baptism ceremony, and is fully committed to Sikhism.
It’s possible to be a Sikh without being Khalsa, and the 5 k’s are still an important
sign of worship, just like the Christian cross. Although impractical at times, I
appreciate the broad variety of strong values that the Five K’s represent.
Within Sikhism, cutting hair is seen as disrespectful towards the perfection with
which god created us. Therefore, Sikhs refrain from cutting both their facial
and head hair, and wrap it in a Dastar, which is compulsory for Sikh males.
As well as protecting the Kesh, and being a reminder of commitment to their
faith, the Dastar also represents spirituality, self-respect and courage for many
Sikhs. Although a large beard may be impractical in modern Western society,
I quite like the concept of refraining from superficial changes to the body, as it
encourages us to embrace our aesthetic imperfections as gifts from god and/or
I’ll admit, the Kesh naturally struck me as rather unhygienic, but the next K is a
constant reminder of the need for hygiene. The Kangha is a wooden comb, which
is to be used twice a day to groom the Kesh. The Kangha also represents living a
clean and organized life, and shows that a Sikh is looking after the body God gave
The Kara is an iron bangle that is worn around the wrist at all times. It reminds
Sikhs to think about their actions, and whether what they’re doing is in
compliance with Sikhism. Its cyclical structure also symbolizes the never-ending
life cycle and the reincarnation at the end of a life. The Kara also represents a
link in a chain; the wearer is one link in the community of Khalsa Sikhs.
The Kachera is an undergarment, much like a pair of boxers, which must be
worn at all times. They were originally used in battle, as they allowed soldiers
to move freely whilst fighting, and the compulsiveness of the Kachera meant
soldiers were ready for battle at a moments notice. It also symbolizes control
over sexual desire, and is worn by female Khalsa Sikhs too, although they must
wear something over it so as not be too revealing.
And finally the Kirpan, a short dagger, symbolizing the duty of a Sikh to protect
himself and others around him in danger. It’s a reminder than a Sikh must help
the weak, and not turn a blind eye to evil if it doesn’t directly affect them. The
common length is between 6 and 9 inches, there is no set length, as long as the
wearer feels safe with it on their person. Although it’s illegal to carry blades in
the UK, the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 allows blades for ‘religious reasons’.
Significantly, the list of banned items at the London 2012 Olympics permitted the
Kirpan. Some Sikhs may wear the Kirpan discreetly under their trousers, or a
smaller article around their neck.
The 5 k’s may be impractical, and even controversial, but their immediate
connotations must not cloud our judgment of their religious meanings;
thankfulness, cleanliness, contemplation and foresight, preparation and control,
and defense of the weak.