Mastering color: natural dyes of the Indian subcontinent

For centuries most of the world struggled to find ways to fix colour to cloth without it instantly coming out in the wash. Vividly painted and dyed textiles were coveted items, often quite expensive and made almost exclusively by artisans in the Indian subcontinent.


Video transcript and image captions

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Terms to know:

Tang Era
Known for its strong military power, successful diplomatic relationships, economic prosperity, and cosmopolitan culture, Tang China (618–907) was one of the greatest empires in the medieval world.

Resist dyeing
In this method of dyeing, parts of the fabric are made to resist the application of color by stitching, folding, wrapping, hand-plucking or tying the fabric before it is immersed in the dye. These handcrafted fabrics are characterized by minor inconsistencies in color and design, privileging human imperfection over factory-made textiles which are perfectly dyed and replicated in the thousands.

Block printing
The process of stamping designs and patterns on base fabrics such as cotton or silk using dye-soaked, hand-carved wooden blocks. The technique is central to a variety of printing traditions across India in which blocks are used to create a range of designs composed of floral and religious motifs, geometric forms, and calligraphy.

Indus Valley Civilization
A Bronze Age civilization located along the basin of the Indus river, in the northwestern regions of South Asia comprising present-day northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and western and northwestern India. The civilization is dated between c. 3000–1300 B.C.E. and is known for its urban planning, drainage and water supply systems as well as the presence of non-residential architectural sites. Notable cities from the civilization include Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.

Priest King
The Priest King is a steatite stone sculpture that was excavated in Mohenjo-daro, an archaeological site that represents one of the largest settlements in the Indus Valley civilization (in present day Pakistan). Dating back to c. 2000–1900 B.C.E., the figure depicts a bearded male figure with combed back hair, wearing an armband and cloak with trefoil designs, and is one of the most famous remnants of the civilization.

Kashmir Shawl
Warm, lightweight handloom garments originally made in Kashmir using pashmina or shahtoosh yarn, Kashmiri shawls were traditionally made by weaver families, with the women spinning the yarn and men weaving the fabric. The shawls are characterized by their intricate buta pattern, woven using the kani twill weave or embroidered in sozni and amli, which are applied on a plain base. These shawls were also called ring shawls since the material was so fine that the entire shawl could be pulled through a small ring.

Kanchipuram Silk (also known as Kanjivaram)
A variety of silk saree woven in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, and renowned for their zari (gold or silver thread) work. These are typically worn during auspicious occasions and exchanged as gifts during ceremonies such as weddings and temple festivals.

A warp-resist-dyeing technique practiced in the state of Rajasthan, India, leheriya is known by its distinct patterns of stripes, chevrons and diagonals. It is traditionally found on the safas (turban cloths) worn by Rajasthani men and the odhanis worn by the women, as well as on sarees. Leheriya derives its name from the Sanskrit word lahara, meaning “wave,” and refers to the inspirations behind the designs: the monsoon season—a time of celebration in the state—as well as the patterns created by the wind on the desert sand.

From the MAP Academy Glossary

Additional resources

Learn more about South Asian Art History from The Map Academy

Woodblock Printing Traditions from Across India (MAP Academy Cluster)

South Asia’s most Recognisable Dyes

Rosemary Crill, Indian blues… and reds… and yellows (from The Map Academy)


From our partner, The MAP Academy

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Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Mastering color: natural dyes of the Indian subcontinent," in Smarthistory, August 17, 2022, accessed May 27, 2024,