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The Kangha





Kangha. Comb.

A small wooden artefact, about two inches by three.

One of five articles of faith -- the Five ‘Ks’ -- worn on the person by Sikhs who choose to take on the full discipline of the Faith.

It’s the same simple, minimalist artefact which can still be bought today for a few cents, and it’s the same innocuous object worn within the tresses of a Sikh’s unshorn hair -- rich or poor -- almost like a hair accessory.

There’s no dearth of public discussion and awareness about three of the Five K’s. The Kesh (unshorn hair) and the Kirpan get lots of ink from Sikh and non-Sikh. The Karra (steel bracelet) is ever visible on a Sikh’s right wrist and has acquired the aura of a fashion accessory, again, by both Sikh and non-Sikh.

The other two, being out of sight, remain mostly out of mind.

Today, I speak of the Kangha, saving the Kacchhera (short breeches) for another day.

Like all things that hold symbolic value, the kangha too holds a whole world of significance and meaning. Unfortunately, we overlook all the nuances because it is the only one of the five Sikh articles of faith which has an obvious functional role in the routine of our everyday lives.

It’s a comb. It sits tucked in beneath the hair-bun, the male joorrah or the female gutt. And it sees the light of day only when the hair needs to re-groomed, the bun tightened or adjusted.

And it is that role -- as a hair accessory -- that lends it its primary importance as a symbol.

Unshorn hair has long been central, at one stage or the other, to all communities and societies through human history. It embodied spirituality and a commitment to a higher purpose in life.

Sikhism, however, took a marked departure from them all, by recognizing it as something of beauty and value and therefore worth nurturing and celebrating.

Hinduism, for example, embraced renunciation as a path to salvation and extolled the denigration of the human body through neglect and self-punishment to achieve it. So, disdain for the human body translated into neglect … and matted, unclean, unkempt hair, for example. A practice picked up by many other traditions, the most visible one in modern times being the Rastafarians.

Buddhists and Jains acknowledged its beauty as part of the human form, but because they view human life as an affliction and a period of suffering, the uglification of the human body through shaving off its beauty became part of its ideal route to salvation.  

Jewish and Christian scriptures sing about the virtues of unshorn hair. Which then translated into Jewish and Christian practice as a symbol of strength and beauty which could be wielded in war as a weapon … or an instrument of punishment. Pagan and heathen practices quickly crept in as well -- through, inter alia, Greek and Roman mores -- and keeping or discarding hair became a fashion statement, or an identity marker.

Zoroastrians and Muslims too played with hair as a human appendage and carved rules around it, again, to express power, piety and wealth.

Sikhs, with their revolutionary idea that human life was a reward, not a punishment, sought to celebrate the human body. Unshorn hair, therefore, was  to be valued … which translated into the need to keep it clean and a sign of good health, as opposed to neglecting it or sculpting it to fit into ever-changing political or religious world-views.

Hence, the kangha.

A Sikh with unshorn hair is required by fiat to keep his tresses clean and healthy. Hence the daily amrit-vela bath, and the ever-present comb to keep it tangle-free.

Thus, the requirement for unshorn hair was uniquely and intrinsically tied to cleanliness and a healthy lifestyle.

Just as the turban is to be opened and re-tied every morning (instead of being placed on the head like a cap or hat) in order to have it aired daily, so is the hair-bun to be unravelled every morning and evening and combed.

Parallel to the twin concept of miri and piri -- the combination of spiritual and temporal obligations of every Sikh -- is the principle that inner beauty is tied to outer, physical health. The first cannot be achieved without the other.

The kangha serves as a constant reminder of its role as a bridge between the two worlds, which makes it as important as any of the other articles of our faith.  

For me, its significance doesn’t stop there.

If physical beauty and cleanliness and health are as important as their spiritual counterparts, then I believe it is incumbent on us as Sikhs to do all that is necessary to live balanced, healthy and aesthetic lives.

It is for good reason that we visualize our Gurus as handsome figures who dressed well and lived well. Similarly, we see our female Elders and heroes as beautiful and striking personalities.

We remember those who were subjected to torture or privation -- Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadar, Mata Gujri, the Four Sahibzadas, to take but a few examples --  not as suffering victims but as triumphant, victorious and resplendent souls.

In our mind’s eye, they don’t live as medieval, out-of-date historical personages, but as current, modern, ever-fresh sources of inspirations.

We don’t require Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master, to renounce the horse because popular lore describes, Guru Nanak, the First Master, as walking from one land to another during his travels.

We don’t picture Guru Gobind Singh in long, floor-length cholas the way we do Guru Nanak, nor do we take him to task for not imitating his predecessor in his physical appearance.

The kangha therefore represents modernity to me.

It permits me, nay, requires me, to be as well dressed as it is possible, in tune with the times, to the extent my pocket allows me.

If I can’t afford an Armani doesn’t mean I cannot walk around in simple, clean, ordinary clothes. There is no excuse in the world that justifies an uncouth or ungroomed appearance.

One can have an unshorn beard, groomed or flowing, and a dastaar, and look as grand as a prince. One doesn’t need to dress up like an eighteenth century nihang, even on Sundays, to celebrate one’s Sikhi.

One can be dressed in the latest fashions from Paris, or the affordable outfits from Sears, et al. Salwar-kameezes are still my favourites, but I can see … without being a woman … that they need not to be ill-fitting or unkempt to emphasize one’s Punjabiyat.

One’s home too can be the most aesthetically pleasing one in the world, without having a stick of furniture. Which means, the kangha reminds us, that the same attentiveness is due to the external, physical world as we give to our inner-selves.

And vice-versa.

The same applies to the work we do, to the seva we perform, the widgets we produce, the services we deliver, the families we rear, the friendships we nurture, the relationships we build …

“Salvation is to be found,” says Guru Arjan, “amidst play and laughter, adornment and nourishment, not away from it all …” [GGS:522.10] 

Through active engagement, that is, not through neglect or renunciation. 

That, in a nutshell, is the message I garner from the kangha-comb … every day, not just on Sunday mornings or high-holidays.


March 3, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 03, 2013, 10:42 AM.

In the aftermath of the famous battle of Bhangani, Guru Gobind Singh himself went to survey the site where lay the martyred bodies of Sangho Shah, Jit Mal and other brave Sikhs. Pir Buddhu Shah had also lost two of his sons fighting for the Guru. The Guru ordered the Sikhs to honorably dispose the bodies of the dead on both sides. The Sikhs were cremated, the Hindus consigned to the river and Muslims buried, with all solemnity. Pir Buddhu Shah presented himself with his two surviving sons to the Guru. At that time the Guru was combing his hair. Pir Buddhu Shah begged of him to give him the kangha with his loose hair as a sacred souvenir. The Guru acceded to his wish and in addition gave him a turban and a small sword. But, the greatest gift of all, the Guru blessed him with Naam.

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA..), March 04, 2013, 3:00 PM.

Sher singh ji, you are comparing Miri and Piri as temporal and spiritual obligations of a Sikh. Spiritual obligation is "Inner Life" and not inner beauty. "Inner Life" is an elevation of the soul through Naam Simran.

3: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), March 04, 2013, 3:54 PM.

Ajit Singh ji: by "inner beauty" I am indeed alluding to inner life, that is, one's spiritual life and development.

4: Kirpal Singh (New Zealand), March 05, 2013, 3:29 PM.

Dear T. Sher Singh ji: Noted your long write-up on 'The Kangha' with some new words and expressions but the use of the kangha is far from reality these days. Most Sikhs (I certainly) comb my unshorn hair every morning in my bathroom using a comb that I can hold comfortably and it moves smoothly through my hair to give good texture to my hair. After that I do not need to comb my hair throughout the day. Whenever I travel, I do invaribly carry a comb (a kanghi with handle). Though I still support a kangha as prescribed in the rehat, by habit, but practically without much utility, to be honest. I am left with the last two kanghas and I have been asking people where to get some more. I hardly use a kangha but I still feel a guilt when I do not have one tagged at the base of my 'joorrah'. I have not seen women using a kangha to comb their hair either at home or in public. They all use a variety of combs of different shapes and designs. The aim of the kangha that you expressed is to keep the long hair tidy whether using a kangha (with dimensions that you stated) or any other comb. Kangha is not so important - what is important is to keep the hair tidy and smartly managed.

5: Sarjit Kaur (Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.), March 05, 2013, 4:53 PM.

I used to have thick hair, now reduced to almost baldness. Wondering if caused by kangha, water, or just keeping wet hair covered before it could dry?

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