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Color My World : The Dyeing Art of Natural Indian Pigments

For most Indian women one of the most exciting aspects of dressing up in Indian Ethnic wear is the range of vibrant colors and vivid hues that they can choose from. While most Western Couture is defined by a limited range of palettes that are considered season appropriate, Indian Ethnics have no such limits. You can pick any color for any part of the year and no Pantone color of the year is going to stop you.

Indian women wear is a delightful break from the monochrome monotony of western attire and offers that in a range of palettes to suit every taste- be it subtle cotton pastels, or silks in rich jewel colors, linens in earthy neutral tones or the bright spring shades of printed calico, no one else does colors like we Indians do.


India - A Land of Many Colors

It has to be because of our preoccupation with color that we even have historic architectural landmarks like the red sandstone Red fort in Delhi, the delicate saffron hued Stucco laden Quaiser Bagh of Lucknow, or even entire cities like Pink City - Jaipur and the Blue City - Jodhpur;  all of which attract tourists and shutter bugs from all over the globe to alight onto our colorful world like bees to a spring bouquet. Even the communities native to the Thar desert use vivid hues and vibrant colors for clothes, jewelry and other artifacts, making it the most colorful desert in the world.


Have you ever thought how all these beautiful, resplendent, colored fabrics that you wear with pleasure, are made ? Could you imagine what your world would look like if there were no color dyes to paint your textile dreams. 

Most of the fabrics we wear today are colored in synthetic dyes that are chemically produced in labs with modern technologies, many of which are even harmful to the environment.

That doesn't however mean that we didn't know vibrant colors before the lab produced dyes became widely available.

Which Fabric Dyes Were Used in Ancient India?

In the ancient period natural dyes made from plants, animal extracts or minerals were the only available sources of fabric dyes. While most dyes were either mineral pigments or plant extracts from sources like flowers, woods, nuts, seeds, berries, barks, and roots, some other sources like certain fungi or lichens, or even insects and shellfish were also not uncommon.

We have been colouring our fabrics since thousands of years with locally available materials. In India there are almost  four hundred and fifty dye yielding plants. Even at a site as old as Mohenjo-Daro, a 5000 year old scrap of madder dyed cloth was excavated.

In fact, not surprisingly India has a rich heritage of being one of the world's foremost and biggest suppliers of natural dyes to the rest of the world in ancient times. People in regions like ancient Greece, Egypt and even ancient Phoenicians relied on Indian dyes.

Some of the most prolifically produced colors in India with a high overseas demand were indigo, yellow, red and purple.



The most popular dye then, reigning supreme till today, was indigo - "The King of Natural dyes" produced from the plant Indigofera tinctoria  which was named after the Greek word for 'dye' - ' indikon'. The fresh leaves were fermented and  and the remaining sludge was drained and dried into indigo cakes.


Indigo dyed fabrics were dyed with yellow tints to get a green hue. Woad was also commonly used.  



Various shades of Red and pink pigments were derived in India from the red or black berries found on the common madder plant from the coffee family which was once the "The Queen of Natural dyes". In fact the color known as Turkish red was developed in India much before it reached Turkey.

 Red pigment derived from natural unprocessed shellac or lac was also once used to dye Kanchipuram silk sarees.



Yellow was derived from an unconventional source in ancient India. Cows were fed yellowed mango leaves and their urine was dried to produce a bright yellow pigment. 

(Hey ! we did say unconventional, but thankfully that was not the only source.)

Turmeric and marigold flowers were used to produce Ocher, a dye that cotton took easily without a color fixer, or mordant. The dry outermost skin of onions was also used to derive a bright yellow tint for silks, wools and cottons. 


Saffron, that we know as kesar, was used to derive orange color for fabrics, even giving the famous moniker to Quaiser Bagh in Lucknow.

And did you know, that the color khaki, produced in India until medieval times from a variant of palm shrubs, was so named because of its resemblance to dry clay or soil, known as khaak, in Urdu. Khaki fatigues were a popular choice among the military, precisely because they could offer their soldiers effective camouflage by allowing them to merge into dry arid landscapes.



Another dye still used, although in limited areas, is derived from the Morinda Citrifolia tree in India and Sri Lanka. It results in reds and shades of chocolate and even produces purple, a pigment otherwise derived in antiquity from sea clams. It was extremely rare and hence highly prized. No wonder then that purple robes were only permitted to the royals in areas like ancient Greece, and use of purple clothes by anyone outside the royalty there was punishable by a death sentence.

The Decline in Use of Indian Natural Dyes 

Marco Polo was the first traveler to India to mention indigo in his memoirs. With the discovery of a sea trade route to India by Vasco de Gama, by the 15th century block printed textiles from Gujarat and Deccan began to be used by Europeans for garments and home linens.

Then, in the 19th century, following widespread farmer struggles and protests against the East India Company's enforced cultivation of Indigo plantations, came the discovery of chemical dyes in England. While at one time India had a virtual monopoly over dyed and printed textile markets,  this change caused immense distress to the Indian textile industry, already failing to compete with the power looms of England.

Indian Natural Dyes Today

Painstakingly extorted from plants and flora, the formerly abundant natural dyes of ancient India, that once adorned natural handmade fabrics by artisans on the sunny banks of Indian rivers, are a rare sight today.What we now have is a festering inundation of chemical dyes that infuse our rivers with noxious waste.

  Getty Images

Why Did Synthetic Dyes Replace Natural Pigments 

Synthetic dyes are popular for multiple reasons. They are easy to  produce in large quantities in a lab, require fewer resources including land, labour and mordants and are hence cheaper to produce and easy to apply. The colors of natural dyes also tend to fade faster in the case of some pigments and their sources may not be available in steady supply throughout the textile production process.

Revival of Natural Indian Dyes

However with a rising awareness in the environmental impact of synthetic dyes both producers and lovers of colored fabrics and garments are gradually rediscovering the benefits and beauty of natural dyes. Synthetic dyes require the application of salts and organic compounds that resist bio-degradation. They require the excessive use of water, up to three quarters of which is rendered undrinkable - a toxic mix of dye, alkalis, chemicals, salts, heavy metals and harmful chemicals.

Many businesses producing textile, ready to wear garments as well as accessories are experimenting with natural dyes for their products.  It is attracting consumers who seek to reduce their contribution to polluting the environment as well as the fashion conscious buyers seeking the 'unfinished' look or 'raw-earthy' allure of natural dyes and their irregularities. It is also reviving the traditional methods of processing dyes on fabric, reinstating the dyer artisans. Yet another positive development is the rising demand for natural dyes in the international market riding on the need for sustainable fashion. Farmer's also stand to gain by growing crops of dye yielding plants.

The Au natural trend is catching on and you might wish it would soon transform from a fad to a movement, considering that it seems to be a beneficial proposition for all involved.

And why should it not; when there are so many beautiful hues to choose from at no cost to the environment ?



Images courtesy : Feature Image : Instagram, Garments - Pure elegance, Plants : Wikimedia commons, Architecture :

Article By : Bhavna R

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