India is the oldest center of indigo dyeing

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A Letter From Grandpa

By Niranjan Shah

My dear Reva and Asha:

We had seen that art of weaving fabric was India’s ancient contribution. Professor Weber writes: “The skill of the Indians in the production of delicate woven fabrics, in the mixing of  colors,  the  working of metals and precious stones, the preparation of essences and in all manner of technical arts, has from early times enjoyed a worldwide celebrity.” Your grandparents Dr. Darshana and Dr. Vijay Vyas wanted to know whether Indigo has any connection to India. 

Indigo is mainly used in dyeing technology. As regards dyeing, Elphinstone writes: “The brilliancy and permanence of many of the dyes, have not yet been equaled in Europe.” He adds: “The brilliancy of their dyes is remarked on as well as their skill in manufactures and imitations of foreign objects.”
Dr. Tennet and even James Mill admit that “the Indian colors are the most brilliant on earth. The Hindus were the earliest nation who discovered the art of extracting colors from plants. The names by which several plants are known in foreign countries bear testimony to this fact. Indigo is so called after India. Pliny used to write Indico.”

Bancroft gives much praise to the “native of India for having so many thousand years ago discovered means by which the colorable matter of the plants might be extracted, oxygenated and precipitated from all other matters combined with it.”  Even Mill is constrained to say: “Among the arts of the Hindus, that of printing and dyeing their cloths has been celebrated; and the beauty and brilliancy, as well as durability of the colors they produce, are worthy of particular praise.”

Indigo was used in India, which was also the earliest major center for its production and processing. The Indigofera tinctoria variety of Indigo was domesticated in India. Indigo, used as a dye, made its way to the Greeks and the Romans, where it was valued as a luxury product. India is the oldest center of indigo dyeing in the world. It was a primary supplier of indigo to Europe as early as the Grece-Roman era. The association of India with indigo is reflected in the Greek word for the dye, indikón  (Indian). The Romans latinized the term to indicum, which passed into Italian dialect and eventually into English as the word indigo.

Indigo is among the oldest dyes to be used for textile dyeing and printing. Many Asian countries like China, Japan and South East Asian nations, which were under cultural influence of India, have also used indigo as a dye (particularly silk dye) for centuries. The dye was also known to ancient civilizations in Meso-potamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.

In Mesopotamia, a Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablet of the 7th century BC gives a recipe for the dyeing of wool. Indigo was most probably imported from India. The Romans used indigo as a pigment for painting and for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. It was a luxury item imported to the Mediter-ranean from India by Arab merchants.

Indigo remained a rare commodity in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Woad, a chemically identical dye derived from the plant Isatis tinctoria (Brassicaceae), was used instead. In the late fifteenth century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India. This led to the establishment of direct trade with India. Importers could now avoid the heavy duties imposed by Persian, Levantine, and Greek middlemen and the lengthy and dangerous land routes which had previously been used. Consequently, the importation and use of indigo in Europe rose significantly. Newton used “indigo” to describe one of the two new primary colors he added to the five he had originally named, in his revised account of the rainbow in Lectiones Opticae of 1675. Because of its high value as a trading commodity, indigo is often referred to as Blue Gold.

— Grandpa’s Blessing

Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at nshah32@hotmail.com

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