A History of Head Coverings in India: Turban and Head Veil/Ghoonghat
Headgears have always been an intrinsic element of the multi-faceted indigenous culture of our motherland that is Bharat. Both the chivalrous Pagdi and the graceful Ghoonghat have a profound connect to India’s magnificent cultural prism, which goes back to thousands of years and not just some mere, handful centuries. Although the former is widely revered and respected, the latter has seemed to engage a great deal of controversy with a sexist connotation, quite incorrectly, being attached to it. This false yet common narrative regarding the Ghoonghat or the head-veil, used to bother me as well. Before I inquired about it in detail, and realised, that this bandwagon on which the unsuspecting, educated individuals jump without thinking twice and without bothering to understand this head-dress’ actual essence, is fallacious after all.
Both the head-dresses mentioned above, have the greatest plausible roots in the Northern part of the Indian subcontinent, if we were to look at it from the perspective of Ancient India, and, if we were to take modern territorial arrangements of India into consideration, then just the region corresponding to North-India, of which these headgears have evolved to become the beautiful cultural identity. The head-coverings’ continuation in this region till the modern times bears testimony to this fact.
With that being said, the question that now arises is: what exactly is the origin and significance of the awe-inspiring head-dresses that mark the cultural landscape of our beloved North? Well, the answer to that is a tour of the socio-cultural and religious symbolism and a walk down the historical lane.
THE TURBAN: Origin
This swashbuckling, masculine headgear has been evidenced to be worn in the Indian subcontinent since the dawn of the Harappan Civilisation in the early 4th Millennium BC. Although depicted as an ornament draped over the heads of the Mother Goddess figurines, the turban was in common use with the gentlemen of that era, both the commoners as well as the nobles, as the art of turban drapery was substantiated to be familiar with the Harappan and Indus Valley inhabitants. Now, whether it was worn by women is highly doubtful, leaning more towards the non-existence of this practice with the ladies, as the figurines thus excavated are an imaginative, artistic depiction of the Divine Beings or Goddesses, and not the realistic, bona fide portrayals of the human females of the society.
Moving onto the purely Vedic times from the Harappan-Early Vedic Civilisation, we find numerous mentions of the turban in various liturgical sources. The Rig Ved mentions an episode where multiple men participating in a yagya are seen donning various turbans of different colours. The Maitreyi Samhit describes a form of royal turban known as Ushnisha, which was fashionably draped by the King or the Emperor while performing the Rajasuya Yagya and the Vajapega Yagya.
The Sanskrit vocabulary for the turban is extensive, ranging from the words Shirostran, meaning head-protection (‘tran’ means ‘protection’); Kirita; Patta; Vestanpatta; Ushnisha; and Shirovestan; all either corresponding to the similar turban drapes or could indicate completely different styles all together, as the words have varied meanings. This is because the turbans too came in innumerable styles, each either possibly indicating a socio-economic rank, ethnicity, shape and use of additional ornaments and accessories.
Switching to modern times, we’d find that the prominent use of the turban is in primarily those areas where it was in widespread usage in the historical times. The Marathi Pheta- Puneri and Kolhapuri, the Mysuru Peta, the Punjabi Pag and Dastaar (the latter being the Persian name of the headgear), the Maithili Paag, the Rajasthani Pagadi are the mainly recognizable kinds.
Significance of the Turban:
In the Vedic Indian culture, similar to other cultures, various kinds of tangible commodities were almost always infused with a unique psycho-sentimental symbolism behind them. Similarly, a turban is not a mere piece of cloth. It has an especial significance to it.
The turban, like the many other components of the traditional Indian attire, has multiple symbolisms. Firstly, and most importantly, it signified or signifies the masculine honour. The male pride. The beauty of the Vedic civilisation is, that it has extremely distinctive cultural practices, rituals and traditions, in all aspects like traditional attire, music, literature, dance, art, religious customs, language and architecture, which glorify, highlight and adore the identity and individuality of the two sexes. Hence, the turban is an inseparable element of Vedic culture, as it reveres the uniqueness of masculinity, and honours it. All the wonderful, lovable characteristics that make a man a gentleman, are symbolised by the turban. Psychological symbolism in the Sanatan culture is marked by the embellishment of the physical form. That’s why, the turban is designated to be the emblem of masculine pride and distinctiveness because it furthermore adds to the rugged handsomeness of the debonair Indian man.
Consequently, the beloved turban, is in modern times, widely recognised as a sign of valour and courage, and quite correctly so. Again, what we must keep in mind, is that these two aforementioned qualities are generally associated with masculinity. And it’s perfectly alright if it is. Traditionally, the concept of masculinity automatically implied courage, bravery and martial confidence, as the men in traditional patriarchal societies were assigned the responsibility of being the protectors, of both their households and their motherland, due to their superior physical strength; a role which they performed with great diligence. And hence, automatically the turban, since history, has been related to courage, sacrifice and martial gallantry.
Thirdly, similar to the first point, the turban also symbolises a sense of formal respect and dignity. The two have slightly differing meanings here. There have been a few mentions in ancient literary sources, that a person was barred from entering the royal court without having a turban on his head. Therefore, the donning of the turban denoted the adoption of a formal disposition and attitude; an attitude of solemn, formal respect that was extended by the wearer to other individuals or an occasion. That’s also the same reason as to why quite a few temples mandate some sort of head-coverings to be worn by both men and women, as a mark of respect to the Gods or Goddesses, preferably a turban for the men, who wish to enter, till date.
Also, however, removing the turban in earlier times too counted as an act of paying great respect. For example, the Dharmasutra written by Rishi Apasthamba notes that pupils should compulsorily take off their turbans while approaching their teachers or Gurus, as a token of respect. So, the confusing question that comes up is: does wearing the turban mark the payment of respect or does taking it off? Well, the answer is- both. However, it depended on the occasion, the individual who was being extended the respect, as well as the magnitude of respect being paid. For instance, wearing the turban was a must for formal events like yagya or a visit to the king, however taking off the turban represented thorough submission to those who were on the receiving end of the respect; like the kind a good student does to his teacher as part of the Guru-Shishya Parampara, in accordance to which a student stays in a position of perpetual respectful subservience to his teacher.
Apart from the extension of respect, the turban also signified self-respect and dignity, where the gentleman wearing it treats it as an emblem of his self-esteem and honour. That’s where the Hindi idiom of “pagdi uchhalna”, (literally, removing someone’s turban forcibly) meaning gravely disrespecting someone, comes from.
Fourthly and finally, the turban denoted a status of nobility. Although also worn by the commoners in the North, the turbans of certain kinds worn by the noble courtiers, especially the kings, signified the prestigious profession they practised, and the noble socio-economic status they thrived on.
Naturally, more the financial resources, more elaborate will be the dressing. Moreover, this point is further substantiated by the fact that the Southern Emperors of the Chola, Chera and the Pallava dynasties too have depicted some sort of head-dressing on the moortis of the various Gods, along with the Vijayanagar Emperor, Sri Krishnadevaraya was also sculpted displaying a uniquely conical head-dress on top, which noted Historians call the “Kullai”. This was most probably only worn by the nobles and ministers of the royal court, if at all, as there is no proper record of the common folk of the South wearing head-coverings. This royal tradition of the South could have also been a Northern influence.
THE VEIL: Origin
First and foremost, let me clarify, that the Ghoonghat which will be discussed here in detail, will only refer to the head-veil, which has been in practice since the ancient times, and not the face-veiling custom, which is a practise born out of pure Islamic influence of the Purdah.
There has been a great amount of fallacy and misconception about the origins and the reasoning or significance behind the Ghoonghat. The first myth associated with this is that the Ghoonghat convention was first started in North India under the Islamic influence by the Mughals and the other invaders from the Central and West Asian regions. This, is however, only partly correct. If the term Ghoonghat in this case refers to the face-veiling practice, then yes, it was initiated in Northern India as a Hindu counterpart to the Islamic Purdah. However, generally the term Ghoonghat also implies head-veiling, which wasn’t an externally introduced practice in the Indian subcontinent, it was very much native to our motherland. So, in this sense the Ghoonghat was completely indigenous. So, the correct implication of the Ghoonghat is simply head-veiling, and not the face-veiling, that we see in Haryana and Rajasthan today.
Ghoonghat has its origins in the ancient Sanskrit term of “Avagunthan”, which in turn meant “cloak-veil”. Hence, in ancient and medieval times, this was a kind of veil that comprised of an extremely long piece of decorated, embroidered cloth that extended from the head to almost below the knees, like a cloak. There were other kinds of veils that were popular in the ancient and even medieval society, such as the Uttariya or ‘shoulder-veil’, Adhikantha-Pata meaning ‘neck-veil’, and the Sirovastra meaning simply the ‘head-veil’, which was probably a shorter version of the Avagunthan. There was also the Mukha-Pata, which implied the ‘face-veil’, and was definitely anything but a custom or practise, and was only worn to either cover the face from dust or sun, or to hide the facial identity in times of danger to prevent recognition by any enemies or unwarranted people.
The Significance of the Head Veil
Alright, let’s get down to some controversy. The second very prominent myth associated with the Ghoonghat, is the typical pseudo-feminist argument that this head-veil is an “oppressive”, “misogynistic” practice and that has been forced upon the women to act as a “safeguard” of their “modesty”. No, and no. It couldn’t get farther away from the truth than this. The reason this rather erroneous interpretation of the Ghoonghat has been made, is because numerous people, both literate and illiterate, have equated this head-veil to the Islamic Hijab, because that too coincidentally happens to be a head-veil, and thus conveniently both of their essence is too considered to be the same by almost everyone.
So then, what is the actual significance of the Ghoonghat? Well, to answer that, we need to understand the concept of a woman’s ‘modesty’ first. Keep an open mind when you read this, and try not to encage your mind by your past assumptions of this word. Now, the word modesty, especially when associated with a woman, has different implications in different cultures. In the Islamic culture for instance, a woman’s modesty is defined by her complete renunciation of any kind of physical ornamentation or beautification, either in the form of jewellery, or elaborate clothing. Austere simplicity and plainness of the female attire is expected and practised, because according to the Quran, catering to physical attractiveness is forbidden, for both men and women. Similarly, the reason for wearing the Hijab too is to adhere to this strict paradigm of feminine modesty, and to protect the women from the “evil-eye” of men, as the exposure of hair is considered to be sexually indecent in the culture.
However, the notion of ‘feminine modesty’ is very different in the Hindu-Vedic culture and society. The concept of ‘modesty’ or ‘lajja’ did not entail in any way the extreme astringency in attire or physical presentation. ‘Modesty’ in the Indian context meant the humility of the lady, and not sexual subservience. It meant the honour of the woman, or in other words, her feminine grace. Now, the term ‘honour’ here does not mean the woman’s chastity or maybe even virginity. It meant the kind of respectfulness and selflessness she harboured towards everyone, which in turn made her respectable. Just like a man was respected only when he extended the appropriate respect and dignity in return, similarly, the same case applied to the woman, in the Hindu society.
Thus with that being cleared, let’s observe the various reasons or symbolisms attached to the Ghoonghat or the head-veil. The first, and the most significant one, is that the Ghoonghat was a cultural emblem of a lady’s marital status. Just like the Sindoor and the Mangal Sutra, the Ghoonghat too symbolised the sacred vow of marriage that she had lovingly taken. It was an instrument of embellishing the physical form of the selfless married lady, as a reminiscent of her significant other, whom she loved more than her life. But there are some “feminists” out there who find faults within these adorably loving customs as well, that celebrate the sanctimonious bond shared between a wife and her husband. And if there is anyone, who thinks there is anything sexist about a lady displaying her affection for her husband, then the fault lies with that person.
Coming back to point, if we were to note, there are several sources which mention the Avagunthan practice prevailing in Ancient India. For instance, the playwright of the acclaimed 6th Century BC Sanskrit play- Mrichhkatika, meaning: The Little Clay Cart- Shudrak, notes that married women put on the Avagunthan while moving in public, to assert their status as taken, married women. Moreover, when one of the main characters, Vasantsen, has taken a suitor, she puts on an Avagunthan, to display her relationship status. Thus, it is key to note that unmarried maidens did not don the head-veil.
Secondly, the essence of the head-veil also included it being a representation of respect. Similar to the point made in the turban significance, the Ghoonghat was worn by women as a token of respect, either to a certain occasion, or individuals, like elders and Gurus, a practice still followed in North-India in especially the rural households, where women pull the loose end of their saree or dupatta over their heads to show respect to elders, because in the Vedic culture, shrouding one’s head is taken to be a sign of extending respect. Just like how we till date enter temples of the North with our heads covered, for both women and men. Similarly, it was worn in public as a symbol of formality as well.
Thirdly, again similar to one of the points in the turban’s explanation, the Ghoonghat is also denotation of a married lady’s femininity and grace. In the Sanatan culture, as talked about earlier, the ‘modesty’ of a woman did not and does not imply severe simplicity and plainness of physical appearance. It was quite the opposite. The concept of ‘Shringaar’ marked the femininity of a lady. She was supposed to be showered with aesthetic clothing, jewellery, ornaments and other accessories to beautify her already radiant semblance, which catered to the innate natural desire of self-beautification that women possess. Self-embellishment is an intrinsic characteristic of femininity, every aspect of which is worshipped in Hinduism. It is essential for women as it provides a sense of self-satisfaction, esteem and confidence in oneself, if we were to delve that deep. Therefore, since reverence of women was quite high in the traditional Hindu-Vedic society, her femininity was loved and exalted by adorning her with exquisite finery. Similarly, the aesthetic appearance of the head-veil on a woman, made her look even more feminine and graceful, as it visually replaced her long, bewitching hair, with a beautifully coloured piece of cloth, and elegantly framed her face, just like her hair would. She obviously couldn’t keep her hair open all the time so the Ghoonghat was an ornamental substitute, to give the effect of long, flowing hair, in which she looked the most attractive. Thus, due to its wonderful visual and aesthetic image, and its association with a Hindu lady’s marital pledge, it became a symbol of femininity.
Fourthly and finally, the head-veil was also worn by even unmarried ladies as a symbol of nobility. In the royal households, maiden princesses were often seen donning a Ghoonghat, during medieval times, especially, as a mark of royalty and the fashion sense of nobles and aristocrats.
Therefore, next time if any one of you sees a disproportionately negative association with any Vedic practice, know that it might be incorrect, and believe in our ancestors; they were wise people.