Guransh Singh knelt at the altar as his priest and uncles unfurled yards of a salmon-colored fabric. His family and friends, beaming with pride, chanted in the temple as the men crowded around the 14-year-old, tucking and tying, until they had wrapped his head with a turban for the first time.
With that, Guransh became a man. Like a bar mitzvah or confirmation, he went through a rite of passage in the Sikh faith Saturday, marking the time when he was firm enough in his beliefs to make a lifetime commitment.
The turban-tying ceremony, called Dastar Bandi, included hymns and prayers accompanied by musical instruments rooted in the religion's South Asian heritage. Sikhism, one of the world's largest religions, is not related to Islam.
According to their beliefs, men cannot cut their hair and are required to cover their heads daily with a turban.
"For a Sikh, it is a beautiful ceremony," said Sartaj Singh Dhami, a member of the Sikh temple at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville who works with the temple's youth. "He is going to be walking forward in society with a turban on, and this is a way to say that we are with him."
And, as many Sikhs say, carrying out their faith in American society does come with difficulties in the post-Sept. 11 world. The image of Sikhism -- turbans and long, untrimmed beards -- has led to misconceptions. Some Sikhs have been subjected to slurs and discrimination. There have been cases in which a Sikh's hair has been cut, and they have been prosecuted as hate crimes. It even shows up on television: the dunderheaded manager in the NBC sitcom "The Office" fears that the Sikh IT worker is a terrorist.
Sarabjeet Kapoor, a 26-year-old lawyer from Falls Church, said he has been called Osama bin Laden and been given dirty looks while riding the Metro train.
"You wouldn't say something like that to anyone except for me," he said. "People cower away from you." Although, he adds with a smile, "The good thing is, no one sits next to me on the Metro."
The situation has created an "identity crisis" for Sikhs, Dhami said. Many young Sikhs cut their hair or trim their beards to blend in.
But Guransh's father, Rajwant Singh, said his son has become "conscious of his faith" and is mature and knowledgeable enough to live it in his everyday life.
During the hours-long service at the temple Saturday, Guransh stood next to Sikh holy scriptures placed on an ornate altar. He sang a hymn and performed on the harmonium, an air-based piano, and the tabla, a percussion instrument central to a Sikh religious service. Guransh has prepared for the event since last summer.
The leader of the congregation, Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, said that the young men, usually in their early teens, must understand that what they are having tied on their head isn't simply a turban. It is what "dastar" means in Punjab: a crown, a symbol of the Sikh faith. "It is not to tell others who we are," Singh said. "It is a reminder to myself who I am."
Below is an example of this tradition from the Sikh Foundation of Virginia Gurdwara being performed by Giani Kuldeep Singh Ji.