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Holi. If a poll is taken among Indians, living in this country, or in any part of the globe — on the ‘most popular’ Indian festival, Holi is likely to beat all other contenders hollow. Why? Because it spells bindaas fun — that cuts across borders, cultures and societies. But most of all because its key theme is colour.

Holi signals the arrival of the Vasanta ritu or spring. The season of colours. It takes place on the day of Phalguna Purnima, which according to the purnimanta lunar calendar — followed by Hindus several centuries before Christ — is the last day of the year.

Did you know that there are at least six different folklores about the origin of Holi? The most popular among them all is the legend of Narsimha avatar. On this day — the story goes — Lord Vishnu, took the form of Narsimha — a creature that was half man and half lion — and killed demon Hiranyakashipu, to save little Prahlad, his most ardent disciple. So Holi marked the victory of good over evil.

Indians have played Holi for many centuries. Ancient scriptures like Rigveda and Gaduda Purana mention this ritual of people sprinkling colours on each other. They played with gulal--powders made out of spring blossoms, leaves and fruit extracts. The red was Raktachandan (Pterocarpus santalinus); the green was blended Mehendi and the yellow was dried Amaltas (Cassia fistula) and Marigold / Gainda (Tagetus erecta).

We still play with gulal. But now the colours come from chemicals. The red is mercury sulphite; the green, copper sulphate; and the black paste has lead oxide. That is not all. Several dry colours use asbestos talc, chalk powder or silica as their base.

Now you know why your skin breaks out in angry rashes after Holi, and why your vision blurs if your friend throws coloured water on your face.

Where have all the natural colours gone?

But, hey, Holi comes only once a year. And surely protecting ourselves from the onslaught of synthetic colours for one day is not that serious a challenge!

Well a lot more is actually at stake here. And I am not just talking about the lasting effect that these chemical poisons have on the soil and the water around you. You probably know that already. But are you aware that Holi, today, reflects the breakdown of the centuries- old Indian tradition of producing natural colours? And this was not merely about making gulal out of dried plants. It was about making natural dyes for textiles. A profession that provided roti, kapda and makaan for a huge section of the Indian people.

      The History of colour making      

Since when have Indians been making colour? It is difficult to set an accurate date. A scrap of reddyed cloth dug up at the Harappan site, proves that the craft was in vogue even then.

In fact, history tells us that ancient India was known across the world for its brilliant and permanent dyes on cotton — the most difficult of all fabrics to dye. In ancient Egypt coloured cottons were a rage among the royalty. As early as 200 BC, Roman ships travelled to southwest India to pick up huge consignments, because it was fashionable to wear Indian cotton togas!

Pliny, a scholar in the Roman court, once officially expressed his concern over how ‘Indian textiles were draining Rome of her gold’.

Then, communities in various parts of India earned their living by making dyes. But each region had its own special colour identity. Bengal and Kerala made sparkling, pure white. Orange, red and green were the favourites in the arid deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and in Deccan plateau the colour scheme was maroon and bottle green. The use of colour was defined by the local flora, soil, and rivers, and the people who lived there. Why? Because the dyes were made of these:

  • Plants — Leaves, roots, bark, flowers and seeds, these were the main ingredients of dyes;
  • Mineral deposits — the colour and texture of the soil were a vital factor. Pre-historic humans travelled far and wide to ensure a steady supply of red pigment, which came from iron oxide deposits in the earth.

      A rainbow of plants     

Vegetable dyes. The most outstanding feature of the traditional textile business. The weaverdyers mastered the art of making colours out of herbs and plants. They explored local forests for raw materials.

Jackfruit wood was used for a bright yellow.
Kala siris bark yielded brown and pea flowers produced green and blue.
Chayaveru gave Kalamkari textiles that pinkish red.
Harda was used for varying shades of yellow.
Haldi / turmeric was the brightest of all naturally occurring yellow dyes. Curcumin, a natural pigment, was extracted by soaking haldi root in acidic solution.

Orange came from the flowers of gulmohur and safed kikar leaves yielded black.

It is believed that the term "blue collar" worker is derived
from indigo workers, who wore the cheap blue cloth.


Safflower yellow was also a very popular colour. Safflower contains a water-soluble yellow dye and an orange-red dye, which is soluble in an alkaline solution. Artisans colleced fresh flowers before they faded on the plant and the corollas were removed. The yellow dye was extracted by washing the corollas for three to four days in acidified water, which dissolved the colour pigment.

But the dyes that were most in demand were indigo and madder. How were these colours extracted?

Indigo Blue The indigo plant was soaked in a vat or a barrel, which was buried underground to protect it from sunlight. The product was a pale yellow solution. This was paddled continuously for two to three days till a blue substance emerged on the top. This was then strained out and blue cakes were made out of it.

Madder Red: Red dye was obtained from the madder plant. Its roots were washed and dried and ground into powder. This was then mixed with gum or water to obtain a deep red hue. In the 19th century, Turkey red, a brilliant crimson shade, was extremely popular. In fact, all madder-dyed fabrics did brisk business.

  • Water — running water was essential to make dyed fabric;
  • Local wisdom — the people experimented with these locally available raw materials.

Over the years, they built up an enormous knowledge base on how to extract colours and make dyes. And they sustained a vibrant textile industry.

      Attack of the Synthetics      

1856 marked a turning point in the history of colour making (see History). That year, 18-year-old William Henry Perkins, created Mauvine — a chemical which produced a deep purple shade. The formula was patented and its factory production began in 1857. The era of the synthetics had begun. Synthetic dyes were easy to make and cheap, and they spelt doom for the natural dye industry.

During the last 140 years commercial dyes slowly but steadily elbowed the traditional weaverdyers out of business. Today, while a whopping US$1 billion worth commercial dyes industry thrives in India, the art of making natural colours is
almost dead.

How? Let us take a look at what is happening around us NOW.

      Synthetic Dyes – History     

       D I S C O V E R I E S     

                E F F E C T S           
Henry William Perkins discovers

Signalled the birth of the commercial
dye industry.

Mauveine is patented.

Factory production of dyes sounded
the death knell for natural dyes.

About 220 tonnes of alizarin

About 220 tonnes of alizarin

German scientist, Heumann
finds naphthalenecan
produce indigo blue.


With cheaper red dye in the market
price of madder fell dramatically.


Commercial production of indigo
started after 1897


Synthetic dyes overran natural dyes. Check out the events that changed the art of colour  making.

      Natural dyers: a dying breed?     

Let us see how some of the most famous ones are faring...


In Karnataka’s Ilkal town people have been weaving the exotic red and blue-hued Ilkal sarees for many generations. Earlier, the fabric was dipped 14 times in the indigo vat to get that particular shade of blue. Now the artisans here use German Indigo. Why? Because it makes business sense. While the price of indigo plant is Rs 850 per kg, with an additional processing cost of Rs 600, the synthetic colour costs Rs 650 per kg. Also, German Indigo matures in two days while natural indigo takes 10. So market pressures have forced the weavers to make a choice. And they have voted for the synthetics.


The Panikka community lives in the border of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. For over hundred years, the Panikka people have produced aal-dyed sarees, gamchas and shawls for the tribals in Bastar and Jagdalpur. It’s an intricate process, using the bark and secondary roots of the aal tree, and takes over 25 days to complete. It also provides employment for the local forest dwellers, who collect the raw material and sell it to the dalit traders—who supply to the artisans. Now this entire home-spun production network is on the verge of a collapse. Because barely any forest cover remains in this region, and whatever little is left has been made out of bounds for the locals by authorities.


Kalamkari–an exclusive technique of dyeing that is practised in the temple town of Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh — is hounded by yet another menace. Lack of water. Making of Kalamkari is an elaborate process that has 23 different steps! And at every alternate stage the fabric has to be washed in running water. Still water would cause the lines to smudge. Earlier the artisans used to work in the banks of the local river – Swarnamukhi. Then the flow stopped — after two dams were built upstream. Now they have to travel 20 miles to reach the outflow from a lake! And the quality of water here is very poor.


The Chippa community of Sanganer and Kaladera villages in Rajasthan are experts in block printing. 75-year-old Tekeram remembers his visit to Kabul with his father to sell textiles. Their wares were in great demand. They still are. But the dyers here face a unique problem.

Traditionally, the Chippas used indigo and manjistha (a local herb) for the blue and red hues — trademark of sanganeri prints. They also used turmeric roots and pomegranate peels to make green and yellow. Then, about 20 years ago German indigo and alizarin were introduced to them. And they switched to synthetics. But the chemicals took their toll. The local river showed high levels of pollution — cattle died in hordes. So the government ordered the artisans to switch again — this time back to natural dyes!

But the new generation of Chippas have not learnt the art of making natural dyes. Also, they find the process too expensive and time consuming.


Bandhani is perhaps the oldest technique of creating patterns. Its origin can be traced back to Mohenjo-Daro. It has been practiced in India for almost 5000 years. Today, in Gujarat’s Kutch and Saurashtra it provides employment to more than 10,000 people. It is also in great demand in the West, and sustains a brisk export market. But now the Bandhni craftsmen, too, are facing a major identity crisis.

Like the others, they had moved away from madder and other plants to synthetic dyes because it was a cheaper option. But now they are being forced by consumers abroad to switch back to natural dyes. The markets in these countries are far more sensitive to the harmful effects of commercial dyes. Many have already banned import of bandhani printed fabrics. So to keep the trade relations alive, artisans have to hark back to the traditional method of making colour. But, ironically, they don’t know how! Like in the case of the Chippas, the art was not taught to the present generation because it did not make business sense. And now there is no one left to teach them!

      Switchback time     

The irony is — even while we are losing touch with the craft of making natural colours — awareness about the benefits of natural dyes is gaining ground.

Why? Because we have just begun to calculate the price that we pay for using chemical dyes. Its huge and, most  frighteningly, it cannot be measured in terms of money. Let us take a look.

      Cost of Colour     

Colour is used as a basic ingredient by a host of industries — textiles, leather, glassware, plastics and even food. And all of them use synthetic colour. So the volume of production is truly gigantic!

      How does this affect our environment?     

Listen to the tale of one polluted city. Ankleshwar in Gujarat. It is one of the largest chemical industrial centres in Asia, and all the plants here use dyes. Impact? Tubewells yield water that is blood red in colour. A large number of borewells across the city have been abandoned. The soil in and around Ankleshwar has taken on a blackish tinge — a sure fire sign of chemical pollution — and has become infertile.  Ankleshwar is by no means an isolated case. Synthetic dyes have emerged as a serious threat to the air, soil and water around us. This is how the slow poisoning takes place:

  1. The dyeing process requires water. But while chemical colours are manufactured many harmful compounds are released directly to the river, lake or the ground.
  2. Dyes and polymers, which have large and complex molecules, are difficult to biodegrade. The natural environment can neither recognise synthetic dyes nor remove their toxicity. So in terms of toxicity dye industries rank second after the pesticides.
  3. Dyes contain metals — mercury, nickel and chromium — which are difficult to remove from the wastewater released after production.
  4. When effluents from dye industries are released into lakes and rivers, these also take on the tinge. This blocks off sunlight and can do great harm to fish, other aquatic creatures and plants.
  5. Small amounts of these dyes percolating into the soil can damage it permanently.


      HOW does this affect our health?     

We are constantly exposed to synthetic dyes. Some times indirectly—through fruits, vegetables, crops, fish—which absorb chemical pollutants from land and soil and then transfer these to our bodies via the food chain. But our daily encounter with colours (of the harmful kind!) is far more direct and lethal than this. Read on.


Biscuits with a dab of orange cream and green ice cream bars. Colours add zest to food. They also put dyes into our bodies. Synthetic dyes have been used in various food items from 1900. The manufacturers prefer chemical dyes because these have stronger hues and hence look more tempting. In 1937, the dye ‘butter yellow’ (dimethylazobenzene) was found to cause cancer in rats.


You are exposing yourself if you use hair dyes. In 2001, researchers at the University of Southern California found that people using permanent dyes could double or treble their risk of developing bladder cancer. Women who dye their hair for 20 years or more are twice more susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis than those who do not.


The red T-shirt you like so much might be making you sick! Dermal absorption – that is, absorption through the skin – is also a major route through which dye can enter the human system. Recently the European Union put a ban on the import of all products, which use azo dyes. Aromatic amines (a compound from which azo dyes are derived) cause cancer. They are also toxic and may trigger allergic reactions.

      What do we do?     

Can we live without colours? Certainly not! Then what do we do? The most logical solution will be to revive and nourish natural dyes. But a lot of groundwork needs to be done.

      Dwindling supply     

For business to flourish there must be a steady flow of raw material. The Bhotiyas in Kumaon — who once produced dyed woollen clothes, not only for the local consumers but also for Tibetan markets — have stopped making dyes because the surrounding forest cover has disappeared. And the local flora is the key ingredient of their trade. Also, the forest department has set strict regulations that prohibit access to forest resources.

Ancient wisdom must be combined with modern science to
make sound business sense. Scientists must rack their brians

The solution is obvious—large scale cultivation of plants and herbs that make colour. But the communities who use the produce for their work, must be the ones to drive this. If they are assured that this will fetch them returns, they will definitely make a success of this revival campaign…

      Whither water?     

Supply of water is vital. As Phaniraj, an Ilkal dyer laments, “Water of the local Hirehalla nala added that special sheen to our blue.” Today the stream is dry because the river has been dammed upstream at Balkundi. Is the government listening?

      Picking up the threads     

The younger Chippa craftsmen do not know how to extract red colour from manjistha. They never picked up the art from their parents  because they had already been introduced to alizarin. The link has been broken in every other dye-making community. It has to be restored — by encouraging the artisans to relearn the forgotten technique. How? Not only by telling them how good natural colours, but also by offering them incentives that make business sense. After all this is how they earn their living!

      Making money — how?     

The synthetic dyes rule the roost now — because they are cheaper. The production cost of natural dyes are so high, and the process so painstaking that the manufacturers are forced to push up the prices. Result? They only cater to a niche market, with barely any scope for expansion. This will have to change. How? By making the technology of producing natural dyes simpler and less expensive.

      More research     

Ancient wisdom must be combined with modern science to make sound business sense. Scientists must now rack their brains to find answers to questions such as these — Can improved indigo seeds ensure better and faster yield? How can the natural hues get that extra shine? Can they last longer? Simple issues really..but if taken care of, they can solve a HUGE problem...

      What can you do?     

You are a conscious and concerned Indian citizen. Right? Your role in this Operation Revive Natural Dyes is critical.

  • Think and adopt natural You are a consumer, and you can make a huge difference by opting for natural dyes over synthetic ones. Use clothes and fabrics dyed with natural colours. And encourage your family and friends to do so too. Spread the message.
  • Dig up the root of the problem. You can begin in your own town or city. Are there factories using dyes operating around where you stay? Find out how they dispose their coloured wastewater or effluents. How is it affecting your city? Then tell everyone about it.
  • And this Holi make your own natural colours. Use mehendi for orange, haldi for yellow and beetroot for red. Let the good triumph over the notso- good just like Narsimha avtar.


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