When Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) established the Khalsa, or the brotherhood of Sikh men, and made it known that henceforth every Sikh Khalsa male would be addressed as a ‘Singh’ or lion, in one stroke he not only signified his radical commitment to equality by the obliteration of the marks of caste identification, but also prepared the Khalsa for a life of militant devotion to their faith. The reasoning that prompted Gobind Singh to command the initiates into the Khalsa brotherhood to embrace the panj kakke of five symbols of the Sikh faith — kes (uncut hair), kangha (a comb), kara (a steel bangle), kirpan (a sword or knife) and kachcha (special breeches or undergarments) — is less certain. The scholar Jit Singh Uberoi has, nonetheless, offered what is undoubtedly a compelling interpretation of the five symbols and their place within Sikhism. He has suggested that we view Guru Gobind Singh’s injunctions in relation to certain rites of renunciation or sannyasa that were prevalent throughout the Punjab (and indeed the rest of India) in his time. In the initiation rites undertaken by the Hindu sannyasi, he would — having found a Guru or spiritual teacher — have his beard, moustache, and head entirely shaved. The neophyte of the Jogi order, says Uberoi, “is first made to fast for two or three days. A knife is then driven into the earth, and the candidate vows by it not to (1) engage in trade, (2) take employment, (3) keep dangerous weapons, (4) become angry when abused, and (5) marry” (Uberoi 1969:129). Such a life could only signify disinvestiture and renunciation, while Guru Gobind Singh, in requiring Sikh men to keep their hair long, clearly intended the Sikh initiation rite to be understood as an investiture and act of affirmation, standing in antithesis to the rites of Hindu renunciation. The anti-depilatory taboo, argues Uberoi, is to be understood “as a specific inversion in symbolic terms of the custom of total depilation” enjoined by sannyasis, jogis, and others, indeed as the “permanent renunciation of renunciation”, the “negation of the negation” (ibid., 130-31). In the Sikh conception, the function of “constraining the hair and imparting an orderly arrangement to it” falls upon the kangha (comb), and the kes and kangha thus form a unitary and complementary pair. A similar complementary pair is formed by the kirpan (sword) and kara (steel bangle), and Uberoi suggests that “the steel bracelet imparts the same orderly control over the sword which the comb does the hair” (ibid., pp. 132-33).

Uberoi admits that “the custom of wearing long and unshorn hair (kes) is among the most cherished and distinctive signs of an individual’s membership of the Sikh Panth, and it seems always to have been so” (ibid., p. 123). Long hair, because it is distinctive, particularly when it is rolled up in a turban, as it is among modern-day Sikhs, appears to be the most characteristic sign of a Khalsa Sikh male. A recent piece of legislation, the Delhi Gurdwara Act 82 of 1971, went so far as to define a Sikh as a “person who professes the Sikh religion, believes and follows the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Gurus only and keeps unshorn hair.” If it had to be ascertained whether a person were a Sikh, the Act further states, the person in question would be required to make the following declaration: “I solemnly affirm that I am a Keshadhari Sikh, that I believe in and follow the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Gurus only, and that I have no other religion” (McLeod 1989:98). Keshadhari, or orthodox, Sikhs keep their hair long. However, as Uberoi argues, and as Sikh scholars would indubitably agree, despite the preeminence seemingly attached to kes or unshorn hair the five symbols are of a piece, and together constitute “the authenticating sign and seal of Sikhism.” They were almost certainly seen as belonging together on the person of the Sikh, and in one of the earliest colonial accounts we have of the Sikhs, the Khalsa Sikhs were described thus: “The disciples of Govind were required to devote themselves to arms, always to have steel about them in some shape or other, to wear a blue dress, to allow their hair to grow, to exclaim when they met each other, Wa! Guruji ka khalsah! Wa! Guruji ki futteh!” [“The Khalsa are the chosen of God. Victory be to our God” (McLeod 1989:59, citing a text from 1810). Indeed, colonial officials, who were predisposed towards viewing Sikhs as one of India’s preeminent ‘martial races’, and saw in the support rendered to the British by the Sikhs during the difficult days of the Indian rebellion of 1857-58 the vindication of their views, considered the observance of the symbols among Sikhs as not only a true sign of their faith, but as conferring upon them the military prowess for which they were esteemed. “The best practical test of a true Sikh”, wrote the author of a manual intended for army officials, “is to ascertain whether calling himself a Sikh he wears uncut hair and abstains from smoking” (see Oberoi 1994:362). Only those Sikhs who faithfully observed the Khalsa symbols were recruited into the army. It is no surprise, then, that Sikh scholars are agreed that the five K’s “are the symbol of Sikh solidarity, unity and strength” (Johar 1977:90).


Johar, Surinder Singh. Handbook on Sikhism. Delhi: Vivek Publishing Co., 1977.

McLeod, W. H. 1989. Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Oberoi, Harjot Singh. The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Uberoi, J. P. S. “The Five Symbols of Sikhism”, in Fauja Singh et al, Sikhism/ Patiala, Punjab: Punjabi University, 1969.