(Amrit Pal Singh ‘Amrit’)

A widespread fashion in the headgear of various communities in India, particularly the ‘Raajpoots’, Punjabis, Pathaans, and Afghans, was the keeping of a loose piece of cloth at the top of their turbans. The name for this loose cloth varies from region to region, although it is mostly known as a ‘Turla’. In the ‘Maharashtra’ state of India, it is called a ‘Tura’. When a Nihang keeps such a loose piece of cloth in his turban, it is called a ‘Pharla’.

The ‘Turla’

This was a very popular custom in older Punjab. Many Punjabis, whether they were Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims, used to tie turbans with a ‘Turla’. They would also keep a loose piece of turban hanging on their backs. This piece is called a ‘Shamla’.

As times change, so too does the fashion. In Punjab, most people now no longer keep a ‘Turla’ or a ‘Shamla’ in their turbans. New styles of turbans are in fashion. In fact, the vast majority of non-Sikhs and other clean-shaven or people with haircuts in Punjab have already discarded turbans and in the main, no longer cover their heads. The old style of turban (with Turla and/or shamla) is rarely seen nowadays amongst the common public, instead it can be seen amongst very particular groups or on particular occasions. For instance, one can see a Turla kept by ‘Bhangra’ dancers as part of their stage performance.

‘Bhangra’ dancers keep a ‘Turla’ in their turbans.

One can also see a ‘Turla’ kept by soldiers in their turbans, amongst some sections of the Indian and Pakistani paramilitary forces, such as the soldiers belonging to the ‘Rangers’ (Pakistan’s border security force) and the ‘Jawans’ of the ‘Border Security Force’ (an Indian security force).

Pakistani rangers (in blue) and a ‘Jawan’ of ‘Border Security Force’ (in ‘Khaki’) are seen wearing turbans with a ‘Turla’.

It is important to note that the ‘Turla’ and ‘Shamla’ are not only restricted to Punjabi styles of turban. In fact, even today, many People in Pakistan and Afghanistan keep a ‘Turla’ and a ‘Shamla’ in their turbans.

The ‘Turra’

This was an ornament worn over turbans by kings, adorning them with a collection of jewels and pearls, although it could equally be a plume or crest.

The other kind of Turra would simply be a piece of a turban, usually the end of a turban, which would hang loose down the back, thus, a kind of ‘Shamla’, which looks like a ‘Turla’.

One can see a ‘Turra’ hanging on top of Shivaji’s ‘Pheta’ (turban) in many pictures. Shivaji was a Maraathha warrior, who died in 1680 AD.

Chhatra-paTi Shivaji Maraathha,
wearing a turban with ‘Turra’.

The ‘Pharla’

Many Nihangs too keep a loose piece of turban hanging on top of their ‘Dumaalas’ (turbans). They call it ‘Pharla’ (also ‘Pharara’). In Nihang tradition, the ‘Pharla’ is always blue.

The ‘Pharla’

In his book ‘Guru Keeyaan Saakheeyaan’, Swaroop Singh Kaushish gives a ‘Sakhi’, according to which, in Samvat 1760 Bikrami, King Ajmer Chand attacked Sri Anandpur Sahib Ji. Sikh warrior Bhai Maan Singh pitched the flag in the battlefield and fought with force. He was wounded during the ensuing battle during which the Sikh flag was broken by the enemies and fell down. A Sikh relayed this occurrence to Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Guru Ji immediately made a ‘Pharara’ from blue ‘keski’ (small turban) and said, “Henceforth, this Khalsa flag will never be broken”.

The ‘Sakhi’ given by ‘Guru Keeyaan Saakheeyaan’ says that ‘Pharara’ was drawn from the small blue turbans of Bhai Uday Singh, Himmat Singh, Sahib Singh, Mohkam Singh and Aalam Singh Ji. Sahibzada Fateh Singh Ji, who was six year old, also kept a ‘Pharara’. Guru Ji smiled and said, “Son! This ‘Akali Pharara’ will remain in the ‘Panth’ forever. This is the dress of Sri Maha-kaal. Respect it equally to the flag”.

Thus, the book ‘Guru Keeyaan Saakheeyaan’ claims that the tradition of ‘Pharla’ was started by Guru Gobind Singh Ji himself. Though it is claimed that this book was written in 1790 AD, but we find no reference to this book in other old traditional texts. Additionally, this book is discovered only in 20th century. There are many visible changes, which are clearly made in this book at a later juncture.

Interestingly, the book ‘Sri Gur Sobha’ does not mention ‘Pharla’ anywhere. It is important to tell here that ‘Sri Gur Sobha’ was written in 1711 AD by Kavi Sainapati, who was a poet in the holy court of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. He was an eyewitness of many of incidents, however he does not make any mention of Sikhs wearing blue small turbans (keski) or ‘Pharla’.

Another important history book is also silent on the ‘Pharla’ tradition. This book is ‘Gur Bilaas Paatshaahee 10’, which was written by Bhai Kuyer Singh in 1751 AD.

Why is it so that older texts (‘Sri Gur Sobha’ and ‘Gur Bilaas Paatshaahee 10’) do not mention the ‘Pharla’ tradition, but new book (‘Guru Keeyaan Saakheeyaan’ written in 1790 AD) does?

Before reaching any conclusion, let us consider another text, – the new ‘Panth Prakaash’ written by Giani Gian Singh, who states that Nihang Naina Singh Ji tied a tall turban and recited the holy line from Sri Guru Granth Sahib, “Main Gur Mil Uch Dumaalrha”. Since then, his followers, the Nihangs, began to wear tall turbans, which were called ‘Naina Singheeye Dumaalas’.

Under the Dumala section , we noted the following:

“In Punjabi, the word ‘Mal’ means wrestler. It is a trend in traditional wrestling competitions that a cloth is attached over a long bamboo pole. This cloth is called ‘Maalee’ and usually the prize money is tied with it. When a wrestler wins a wrestling match, he lifts this bamboo to show the audience as a sign of his victory. Obviously the prize money tied in ‘Maalee’ is kept by him. Traditionally, if the ‘Maalee’ (prize money) was big, it was called ‘Dumaalee’ or ‘Dumaala’ (double ‘Maalee’).”

It seems that ‘Pharla’, which is like an adornment of Nihang turban, was an integral part of the ‘Nihang Dumaala’ in early days. Today one can commonly see ‘Nihang Dumaalas’ without a ‘Pharla’.

Two Nihangs wearing ‘Dumalas’ with ‘Pharla’

Referring back to our discussion under the Dumala section again, we also noted:

“Akali Phoola Singh Ji was disciple of Bhai Naina Singh Ji. According to the ‘Mahaan Kosh’, Akali Phoola Singh Ji was born around Samvat 1818 Bikrami (1761 AD). From this, we can reason that Bhai Naina Singh Ji introduced this style of tall turbans, known as ‘Naina Singheeye Dumaalas’ in second half of 18th century”.

With this in mind, if we consider the time when Swaroop Singh Kaushish would have written his book ‘Guru Keeyaan Saakheeyaan’ in 1790 AD, he must have witnessed a section of his contemporary Sikhs adorning the blue ‘Pharla’ upon their dastaars. Obviously, he mentioned in his writings and concludes that Guru Gobind Singh Ji must have initiated this tradition. There is however the strong possibility that the description of the ‘Pharla’ was added at a later date in this text. The original text is unfortunately no longer available.

In contrast to this, ‘Sri Gur Sobha’ and ‘Gur Bilaas Paatshaahee 10’ (Kuyer Singh) were written long before Bhai Naina Singh Ji. The tradition of ‘Dumaala’ and ‘Pharla’ was not in vogue at that time, hence we find no mention of it in their earlier texts.

It is common amongst the Nihangs to rename many things. For example, ‘bhang’ (cannabis) is renamed ‘Sukha’ or ‘Sukh-nidhaan’ (literally ‘treasure of bliss’). Similarly, the ‘Turla’ is renamed ‘Pharla’ amongst the Nihangs.

Grammatically, the word ‘Pharla’ originates from the Indian word ‘Phar-haraa’, which means ‘flag’. As it has been said, Bhai Naina Singh started the tradition of ‘Pharla’. The ‘Nishaanchi’ (flagman) would keep the ‘Pharla’ on his turban, so that he could use arms as well, while carrying the ‘Nishaan’ (flag) in battlefield. (See Nihang, in ‘Mahaan Kosh’).

Presently, in most Nihang organizations, the ‘Pharla’ is given only to senior Nihangs. The Nihang-chief himself ties the ‘Pharla’ onto the dumalla of the Nihang to whom it is presented. Other Nihang organizations may send their Nihangs to the ‘Budhha Dal’ chief to get the ‘Pharla’. It reinforces their respect for the ‘Budhha Dal’ and by doing so, indicate their acceptance of the Budhha Dal’s superiority.

This much said, it has to be noted that there is no compulsory ruling or custom that only the ‘Budhha Dal’ chief may bestow the ‘Pharla’ upon a Nihang as many who keep the ‘Pharla’ upon their ‘Dumaala’ have not received this from the Budhha Dal.

Just as with the Dumalla, which is today worn by many Sikhs, who are not Nihangs per se, the custom of wearing a Pharla with the Dumalla can also be noted amongst non-Nihang groups.