Design of Punjab Turban Helmets


Turban Helmet, Royal Armouries

The turban helmets of Punjab are unique and distinct from the shape and form of other turban helmets. There are only a handful of turban helmets in existence today in various museums and private collections that have been attributed to the region of Punjab or to its capital, Lahore. Even though the sample size is small, these Punjab turban helmets all have a high degree of consistant common features among them.

The most distinct feature of the turban helmets of Punjab that is shared among all of the surviving examples is their unusual shape. These helmets feature a one-piece design composed of a primary elliptical bowl with a secondary smaller dome-like bowl surmounting it. It is theorized that while the larger bowl is made to accommodate the wearers head, the smaller dome-like bowl is designed to accommodate the wearer’s hair worn in a top-knot bun. This seamless secondary dome is completely enclosed from all sides with elegant rounded edges and smooth lines where it meets the primary bowl.

The base of the helmet is also unusual and differs from the straight horizontal edge found on the traditional Indo-Persian helmet most popular among 19th century Sikhs. The front and rear edges of the turban helmet are relatively horizontal, but at different elevations, with the front of the helmet being at a higher elevation when worn than the back edge of the helmet which is at a lower relative elevation, hence the rear of the helmet extends further down the head than the front of the helmet. The side edges of the helmet feature a large concave curve between the front and rear edges of the helmet above the wearers ears.

The turban helmets of Punjab with their unique shape and design bear the strongest resemblance to the style of turban most popular among the Sikhs of the first quarter of the 19th century. Visual evidence from paintings and drawings of Sikhs from that early era of the Sikh Empire typically show a small elliptical turban worn high on the head with a prominent top-knot bun and concave side edges quite similar to the turban helmet. Even a very early image of Maharaja Ranjit Singh dated 1810 shows him wearing this style of turban at that time.

While the Punjab turban helmets feature perforated lower edges for the attachment of a camail of chain mail for the protection of the ears and neck, unlike traditional Sikh helmets, the turban helmets do not feature a nasal guard for the protection of the face. The camail of most of the surviving turban helmets have a decorative diaper geometric pattern achieved by the mixing of brass links with predominant iron links.

One of the most important elements of the type of helmet most popular with Sikhs which is strangely missing on most of the Punjab turban helmets are the three prominent porte-aigrette plume holders with their kalgi plumes. The kalgi plume was considered very important to Sikhs of the era of the Sikh Kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and most traditional Sikh helmets from that era feature a common arrangement of three kalgi plumes, with the most prominent and largest kalgi plume affixed to the apex of the helmet. On the turban helmets of Punjab though, overwhelmingly almost none of them feature a kalgi plume holder at their apex. In fact there is only one known Punjab turban helmet in a Patiala collection with a porte-aigrette plume holder at its apex, in the traditional three plume holder configuration. [1] Most of the surviving Punjab turban helmets do not feature any plume holders, while a few feature only one or two flanking the top-knot dome.

Decorative elements on the surface of Punjab turban helmets are fairly consistent in their layout, though not necessarily their design. The Punjab turban helmets all feature a gold damascened band with floral motifs around the base of the steel helmet. The top-knot dome is also partially covered with this floriated gold scrollwork and a thin decorative band can be found along the base where the top-knot dome meets the primary elliptical bowl.

Although it has been suggested that turban helmets did not have padding because they were worn over a turban (Pant, 1983) [2], evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Usually the delicate inner fabric lining of helmets which is designed to act as a cushion between the steel bowl of the helmet and the wearers head does not survive over time and most helmets in collections do not have one. If a helmet was worn over a turban, the turban material would provide the cushion and hence the helmet would not have a padded inner lining as suggested. But a few of the turban helmets in existence do still have their inner padded lining. The turban helmet attributed to Lahore in the Royal Armouries collection for example features a thick multi-layered lining of crimson velvet, with an inner layer of cream cotton, quilted in segments over a layer of cotton wadding. The existence of cushioned inner padding as well as the relatively narrow diameter of Punjab turban helmets suggests that they were in fact worn directly on the head and not worn over a turban. Furthermore multiple eyewitness accounts corroborate that it was a common Sikh practice to wrap turban material around a helmet worn on the head.

‘The cavalry wear helmets or steel caps, round which shawls or scarfs are folded’ (Steinbach, 1845) [3]

Footnotes

1. Davinder Singh Toor, “In Praise of Steel: Understanding Sikh Arms and Armour” (presentation, 2011)

2. G. N. Pant, Indian Arms and Armour, Volume III (New Delhi: Army Educational Stores, 1983), 65

3. Lieut. - Colonel Steinbach, The Punjaub ; being a brief Account of the History of the Sikhs (London: 1845), 59