The Colours of India
India is a diverse patchwork of peoples and influences; its long history and amazing culture means that a visit will be a treat for all of the senses, in a way that very few other countries can be. All of these new sights, sounds, and smells will excite and challenge a first-time visitor to the country, but the defining visual reward for a trip to India is that of colour. Colour is everywhere in India and not just for decoration. The various brilliant shades of deep red, saffron, blue and gold all have deeply symbolic meanings within Indian culture, and a love of colour crosses all social classes and religious divides within India. For the people of India, colours have powerful magical properties, and can be used to ensure good luck and good health.
The Sober Purity of White
Visitors to India will usually find that their first impression of India will usually exclude the colour white, apart from men dressed in brilliant starched white trousers under sober Sherwani tunics. White is symbolic of giving up flamboyance, and adopting a contemplative life; widows traditionally wear white, not black, as in Europe. White is a sombre colour associated with seriousness, peace and purity, and bridegrooms usually wear an elegant white outfit to symbolise entering this phase of their life.
Yellow for Fertility
The garland of brilliant orange marigolds that adorns the necks of married couples is also evocative of fertility, and it mirrors the use of turmeric in cooking and body painting. Turmeric and saffron are also used widely in Indian food. Yellow symbolises the sanctity of a marriage, and the hope of fruitfulness and future blessing. It can also be seen on the faces of Sadhus or holy men, in order to bring blessings.
Timeless, Black and Fearful
Over the centuries the spiritual significance of colour in Indian spiritual tradition developed to allow instant recognition – the faithful don’t need to read or write to be able to recognise their deities. The surface of every votive statue is painted or lacquered, and the deep spiritual significance of religious statuary sees the gods given a fresh coat of paint to evoke their powers. Kali’s black face and red tongue show her power over death and evoke her origins in the timeless, infinite history of the universe. Black is the colour of the void, and is used to ward off the evil eye.
Blue is the colour of Lord Krishna’s skin and is treated with very special reverence. Although his skin tone can vary from bright blue to near-black, he symbolises truth, healing, and tranquillity. Blue is also the colour of the Vishuddha Chakra, that lies near the throat, which is associated with healing in traditional Indian medicine.
Green and Pleasant Land
Green is present on the Indian flag, alongside the pure white of peace, and the deep saffron of purity. Green is also the colour of Islam and as such the colour of India’s second largest religious group. The Kathakali dancers of Kerala depict the gods with green faces.
Rajasthan’s Royal Red
Brides are presented for their wedding ceremony in brilliant red, evoking purity and passion. The brilliantly intricate Mughal-style architecture of the palaces of Rajasthan is perfectly reflected by the red stone used to build them, and the local red pottery, clothing and spices also encapsulate the vibrancy of this region of India. Red is the colour of royalty in India, which symbolises wealth and grandeur like no other.
Indigo – The Peacock’s Shade
Indigo production started in India, but the rich blue dye was valued by the Greeks and Romans, who renamed it Indicum and used it for their finest robes. As far as West Africa Tuareg traders used it to dye their head-dress. Every pair of blue jeans is coloured with a pinch of Indigo. It is the closest shade to match that of the imperial peacock that was allowed to roam across the lawns of Indian palaces, which is now India’s national bird, and the colour is still used to denote independence and a certain sense of panache.
Indian Violet is the shade most highly prized in the West; it is the imperial purple of Roman Emperors, but has less grand associations in India, where it is a symbol of creativity, activation, vitality and flamboyance. In India, the colour red has far greater associations with royalty and power.
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