BY HARLEEN KAUR AND RASNA NEELAM
ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੀ ਭੰਡ ਊਪਜੈ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਝੁ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥
bha(n)ddahu hee bha(n)dd oopajai bha(n)ddai baajh n koe ||
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.
Sikhism is the 5th largest world religion, having originated in the North Indian state of Punjab in 1409. The faith’s main tenets are equality of all, selfless service, purity of character, and remembering God. Many of these teachings came from the 10 Sikh teachers, or Gurus, who organized the faith and were the original messengers of the faith. Now, these teachings are contained in the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib.
A Sikh’s goal in life is to reconnect with the Creator by remembering the Creator’s qualities and attempting to embody them. This also involves remaining separate from worldly attachments like greed, ego, lust, and anger. Through the Sikh spiritual teachings and daily practices—outlined in the Sikh Rehat Maryada, or code of conduct—a Sikh hopes to spend their life in this world aspiring for a pure character, mind, and spirit.
In order to solidify the commitment to the faith and these beliefs, the 10th Sikh Guru created the Sikh identity and initiation ceremony. The initiation ceremony, or amrit sanchar, is meant to occur whenever a Sikh feels ready to commit to all aspects of the faith. This generally includes daily prayers, the identity, and aspiring towards reconnecting with God. Once a Sikh participates in the amrit sanchar, they are considered amritdhari, or someone who has taken amrit (become pure through the initiation ceremony).
An amritdhari Sikh is required to wear the Sikh articles of faith at all times, and this is the essence of the Sikh identity. There are five articles of faith, or kakkars, and they are meant to serve as a constant and physical reminder of a Sikh’s beliefs and values.
The Articles of Faith
Kes: Uncut hair. Sikhs believe that hair, our body, nature, and everything natural is a gift from God. As a sign of accepting and respecting this gift, hair is left uncut and unchanged.
Kanga: Wooden comb. It is meant to be kept on a Sikh at all times in order to maintain the kes and keep it healthy.
Kara: Iron bracelet. A Sikh will wear at least one of these on either arm (although it tends to be their dominant-hand side) as a reminder to do good deeds and of the one-ness of the Creator.
Kachera: Undershorts. These are worn under the pants as underwear and are meant to remind a Sikh of the concepts of modesty, self-respect, and dignity.
Kirpan: Small sword. Representing social justice, equity, and defending the defenseless, the kirpan is a reminder to Sikhs of their difficult history and the need to stand up for what is right. The word kirpan breaks down to two words, kirpa- and -an, meaning mercy and bestow respectively. Thus, the kirpan is meant to be used only when necessary, and only to defend, not attack. The kirpan is worn either beneath or on top of one’s clothing, held by a strap called a gaathraa. The gaathraa goes across the body and the kirpan rests on a Sikh’s left hip.
In looking at how Sikh Americans are presented and represented, we found that the Sikh identity, primarily the 5 kakkars, were often portrayed and seen as primarily male. Although there are many women who wear the 5 kakkars, including the dastaar, it has often been presented as a figure of masculinity and male identity. As indicated with the inclusion of the line from Sikh scripture above, gender equality is significant in the faith, so the notion of an identity just for males is one that comes from cultural and political biases. In order to challenge these social constructions, we decided to put our skills together and create a representation of the female experience with kakkars and with Sikhi as a whole.
Harleen decided to use poetry to reflect upon her own experiences wearing the dastaar and the 5 kakkars, creating one poem for each article of faith. These poems are not necessarily a description of the physicality of each article of faith, but, rather, the notions and ideas one represents and believes in carrying them.
Rasna, then, chose to document the visual embodiments of these ideas through the kakkars, taking (5) photographs of the (5) kakkars. These photographs not only show the physicality of the kakkars, but also show them in a daily environment, allowing them to become part of the contemporary understanding of the Sikh female experience.
The combination of these photographs and poems is meant to depict the Sikh female identity, but also create a place for reflection, education, and understanding.
Thank you for reading, and we hope you enjoy our piece!
Harleen & Rasna
kes - uncut hair
Long, black waves
Flow down and down and down.
Waves part with the teeth of a comb,
but come together again
Like the diasporic sensation of my own
I watch the black and brown
Fall to the ground
Like leaves fall from their
Branches, from their
Roots, calling it quits before the
Winter and the world freeze over
Feeling the strength within each hair
The collective strength of my hair
Rolling it together, folding it inwards
Making it stronger and more resistant
To the questions we will face
The challenges we will overcome
My hair wrapped up
In layers of fabric
Each a representative for the sacrifices made
The mirror shows a friend
and a stranger
Someone unknown to you
Perhaps one you should fear
The dastaar I see as fabric of my identity
You have been taught to fear as a turban of resistance
A symbol of terror
A sign of pain
My keski has made you fear me
Knock me down and keep me down
Denying my Lineage
And yet, I still rise
Kanga - comb
Dark, rigid, strong
against the cool,
Of my table.
Representing a time
When I stood
When I fought
When I remained
Unbending to your
Orders of what it means to be
How you wanted me to clean my head of
All things outside your tradition
Outside of your past
Outside of what is
Each strand parts
Like each flowing of a river
Parting at a fork
Choosing the path of destiny
Each and every time
Brush. Clean. Repeat.
The bristles move through the darkness
Cleaning the dirt
And the dead away
Leaving the light
Dark, rigid, strong
Against the cool,
kirpan - sword
"Lift the pen before the sword"
But how many words will it take
For you to understand,
My body is not meant for your destruction
For the hate-filled stares
That strike like
punches to the gut
For the shouts of
That fly like bullets
Whizzing through the air
Piercing the skin with precision and power
For the blood on the streets of
Filled with screams
Bullet holes in walls
Eyes gone blank
Prayers go up in smoke
As you kneel in front of the door
Tears dampening the ground
Waiting for him to come home
So tell me
How many more stares must I endure
How many more shouts must I hear
How many more murders must I watch
How many more words must I write
Before I can lift the sword
kara - pure iron bracelet
A single, solitary fist
Stood up against the sky
"I need five heads, who will give their life?"
Sarbloh: pure iron, unyielding and true
Representing the purity I try to create
Circularly representing the sacrifice
I must make of my own mind
Impart your wisdom onto mine
Let me become pure
I reach my fingers towards the sky
Hoping to find some glimpse
Of what might be waiting for me
Of what there is of you
But iron, cold against my wrist
Reminding me to look inside
Forge my work out of fire
It is all Divine
My core identity pulled in separate directions
My Kaur identity always asking me questions
Wanting to please those around me
Wanting to please You inside of me
I reach forward, I'm pulled back
Tell me, how do I give myself to You?
Fingers reach upwards
Golden brown against a pure blue sky
Pure iron glinting with sunlight
kachera - undershorts
(One leg in)
Breathe in, breathe out
The hairs stand up on my leg
Like little soldiers
Ready to protect me
Against my own war
Waged against self-esteem
The rustles of fabric like
Covering secrets of
Self-denial and regret
Wrinkles of past and present
History made and history begun
Lullabies of martyrdom
Ready to strike, at midnight
Defending our freedom
(Two legs in)
Determine the center
Of my being
Modesty of my existence
Thighs like tree trunks,
Waxing and waning
Like the groans of trees
Against the wind
Holding stronger to
Roots in the ground
Seeds planted by forgotten names and faces
Outer strength of women, of queens
Inner weakness of trampled souls
And muffled screams
For my own humanity
The fabric caresses my skin
Cool against its warmth
The heat of my veins
Flowing with the
Blood of my
Harleen Kaur is a first generation Sikh American, passionate about using her words—written and spoken—to reflect upon her identity, investigate her past, and create positive change for the future.
Rasna Neelam is studying both art and science, and am interested in interdisciplinary studies and intersections. She loves storytelling - whether it be photography, writing, filmmaking, and more.