The Doc Project

After struggling for an ideal Sikh beard, he's easing up on his face - but not his faith

For nearly 20 years, Tej Swatch struggled with the same painful, daily beard grooming routine, until one day he decided he’d had enough.

"Is 'struggle beard' a term?" asked Tej Swatch when asked to describe decades-long battle with his beard

Tej Swatch spent years perfecting his beard-beautifying regime — until one day when it all became too much. (Submitted by Tej Swatch)

This story was first published in October 2018.

It turns out the saying "beauty is pain" applies to beards, too.

For nearly 20 years, Tej Swatch struggled with the same painful, daily beard-grooming routine.

At peak beard, Swatch spent at least 30 minutes a day tugging, blow-drying, pasting, hair-spraying and bunning his seven-inch beard. Most days, it didn't even turn out the way he wanted.

I don't like having a painful face anymore.- Tej Swatch on the stakes of ultimate beard upkeep

"It was a struggle," he said, "Is 'struggle beard' a term?"

"If it didn't work out that means you had to spend a bit more time doing that whole procedure again, up to the point where you actually have to wash out all your product and start all over again," he said, stroking his face.

Tej's beard at its longest, 2002. (Submitted by Tej Swatch)

Perfecting the technique

Swatch started growing a beard at 14, but by the time he reached his late teens he was getting teased by other Sikh men about his untidy turban and beard.

So Swatch, now 42, set out to become a master beard-sculpter, something he says comes with the territory for Sikh men.

He spent years curating his beard-beautifying arsenal, including the perfect hair-dryer, shampoo, gel and brush.

"It just needed to be pasted down. It needs to be straight," Swatch says.

To achieve that beard straightness, Swatch used a Thathi — a cloth commonly used by Sikh men to groom their beards.

"You tie it on the top of your head, and you look like an old cartoon character with a toothache," he says, laughing, although it was no laughing matter taking the Thathi off when his beard was set.

"You would carefully peel it off and take some hairspray, then you'd dry that so you have a final finish."

To achieve the beard style like seen in this photo, Tej Swatch said it took at least 30 minutes, using multiple products, a specific brush and a hair-dryer. (Submitted by Tej Swatch)

The Five Ks

Keeping a perfectly manicured beard isn't just ego or vanity. Impeccable grooming and hygiene are important elements of Sikh culture.

Sikhs can be initiated into a community called the Khalsa, who live by a collective of symbols known as the Five Ks:

  • Kesh: Uncut hair
  • Kanga: A wooden comb
  • Kara: An iron bangle worn around the wrist
  • Kachera: Wearing clean undergarments
  • Kirpan: A dagger or sword

Kesh, pronounced kay-ess, is all about not cutting your hair, on your head or your face.

"The reason these factors exist is that they came about around the time when Sikhs were being persecuted in India," said Swatch. "The point of it was these five symbols should signify who they are."

Tej says his father's beard, pictured here, was always the one he modeled his own after. (Submitted by Tej Swatch)

The father of all beards

When Swatch started growing a beard at 14, his Dad's beard was the ultimate example for him.

"He was this splendid Sikh man who had this very nice turban and he had this nice fully groomed beard that didn't look cut, it was just something that was totally under control," said Swatch.

"He had a way of brushing it out and then tying a little bun and putting it under his chin before he went off to work."

The younger Swatch insists that despite his efforts, he never got his beard in peak condition like his father's. Eventually the 30-minute daily process was just too painful. 

The "after" photo: Tej's beard is now roughly two inches long, five inches shorter than he kept it in previous years. (Submitted by Tej Swatch)

"Pasting it down, the hair would start to pull down … and some hair would inevitably get plucked out."

After giving it some hard thought about three years ago, Swatch decided it was time to cut his beard. The pressure, the stress, the time investment — it all became too much. 

"I concluded that it's not how long you keep your beard, it's that you keep a beard. People still identify me as a Sikh," he said. "I don't like having a painful face anymore."

Swatch still keeps a beard, but it's only about two inches long now.

Tej and his son Arjun, whose beard hasn't quite started to come in yet. (Submitted by Tej Swatch)

Although his parents still ask once in a while if he'll grow it back, Swatch's beauty-beard days are a thing of the past.

"It's just not who I am," he says.

About the Producer

​Tanara McLean is an award-winning producer and journalist based at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television. Tanara has produced several documentaries for The Doc Project, including How the mbira — an instrument with a complicated history in Zimbabwe — found a following in Western Canada.

This documentary was co-produced by Alison Cook.