Since the formative moments of the tradition, Sikhs have maintained a physical identity that makes them stand out in public, even in the context of South Asia. This identity includes five articles of faith — kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan (religious article resembling a knife), and kachera (soldier-shorts) — and distinguishes someone who has formally committed to the values of the faith by accepting initiation.
While many have attempted to attribute a specific function to each article of faith, these understandings do not capture the connections that Sikhs have with these articles. Perhaps the best analogy (though admittedly an imperfect one) is that of a wedding ring: one cannot reduce the significance of a wedding ring to its instrumental value; rather, one cherishes the wedding ring because it is a gift of love from one’s partner. Similarly, Sikhs cherish their articles of faith primarily because they see them as a gift from their beloved Guru. Trying to understand these articles on the basis of their function is missing the point.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Sikh identity is the turban, which can be worn by men and women alike. The turban was historically worn by royalty in South Asia, and the Gurus adopted this practice as a way of asserting the sovereignty and equality of all people. For a Sikh, wearing a turban asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion, and honesty.