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Toronto Sikhs celebrate culture at Turban Up!
May 15, 2016

The centre of downtown Toronto was awash in colour today despite the rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.

People of all ages, races and religions walked around Yonge-Dundas Square Sunday sporting a rainbow of brightly coloured turbans — bright pinks, royal purple and blue, citron yellow and mandarin orange.

“I wanted a turban because I look nice,” said Jennifer Tse, seven, sporting her just-tied emerald green turban, as her mom and three-year-old sister looked on.

Volunteers tie a turban by starting the folded colourful fabric at the base of the skull and wrapping it around the head. Then add layer after layer of material, working it up to the top of the head.

Some 10,000 metres of folded fabric was brought in for Turban Up!, an event organized by the Sikh Youth Federation to spread awareness about the religion, dispel myths about people who wear turbans, and “break down the barriers that divide us,” organizers said.

In Canada, turbans are most commonly associated with the Sikh community. Sikhs have worn turbans since the 1600s when their 10th Guru vowed to give the Sikhs an unique identity so they would stay faithful. In 1699, he tested his Sikhs to see who would follow his path, even if it meant death. The collective of committed Sikhs who followed him were given the turban to wear, according to Basics of Sikhi, a small brochure handed out at the event.

Turban Up! packed Yonge-Dundas Square as people admired Sikh art and musical instruments, listened to Sikh kirtan music and watched Sikh swordsmanship during a Sikh martial arts demonstration.

Many removed their shoes to sit on the ground and enjoy a free meal, known as “langar,” which is served to everyone in the community.

“About five years ago, a guy at my university said we should tie turbans on people and teach them the Sikh faith,” said “Turban Up” organizer Prabhjot Kaur, 22, who was a fellow University of Waterloo student at the time. “It started as a small event. Then it became tying hundreds of turbans in the university’s student centre. Now, other universities do it, it’s done throughout the U.S., including in Times Square, in India, everywhere.”

Organizers aim to put an end to the type of intolerance experienced by Supninder Singh Khehra, who was attacked in April they said because of his turban on a trip to Montreal.

“I think Turban Up! is important because sometimes people can be prejudiced and close-minded,” said Kaur, a Canadian born and raised Sikh who has always worn a turban. “This event allows people to open their minds, to know we’re not scary people. It shows people we’re just like them. It breaks down a lot of barriers. Plus, it’s fun with all the vibrant colours, music, face painting, Sikh martial arts.”

Mary-Rose Little, 22, who lives downtown, was walking by the square Sunday afternoon with a friend when they were drawn by the colours and loud music to Turban Up!. “We were walking by and saw all the colours,” Little said. “It’s cool. I’ve always been curious about the Sikh religion. It’s a great learning experience.” Rows of long white tables filled the square, piled with material in a rainbow of colours where people could make their choice. The 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, the last of the living gurus, questioned why only kings in India could wear turbans. That is the origin of the Sikh practice of wearing turbans, organizer Kaur said. “Our Guru said my Sikhs are kings,” she said. “He blessed it to women and men. We don’t believe in cutting our hair. We keep our bodies as God made us.” Kaur said what is most important about Sikhs wearing a turban is that it gives them a readily recognizable identity as a faithful people of God.

“We believe in one God. We believe that every faith is equal and our goal is to meet God,” she said. “People should know if they see someone in a turban that is a person they could go to.”

“Canada is a great country. It’s not hard to be a Sikh living in Toronto because the city is so multicultural,” she said. “I hope the event encourages openness in people, not only to Sikhs, but also to Muslims given all that is going on with ISIS. ISIS does not represent Islam in any way.”

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