Colours of Kanjivaram – Red

South India has one of the finest textile traditions, one that combines the skill of master craftsmen with elements of design, colour and weave that are drawn from the cultural and mythological history of the region. The quiet sensitivity of the weaver rooted in custom, ritual and religious fervour creates a special relationship between him andthe cloth he weaves. Kanchipuram was an important centre of worship, and the heritage weaves were always linked with religion, mirroring existing cultural patterns.

As we have seen in the first edition of Varna Sutra, colours have always been closely associated with auspiciousness, symbolising varied social and religious factors, especially when choosing kanjivaram saris for weddings and special occasions. The poet saint Sankara describes to devotees how the object of worship and meditation should be beautiful and auspicious, in his work “Ananda lahiri” (meaning, waves of happiness) –

“Mukhe may thamboolam nayana yugale kajjala kala,
Lalate kashmeeram, vilasathi gale moukthilatha,
Sphuarath kanchee satee Prathu kati thate hataka mayee,
Bhajami sthwam gowreem nagapathee kisorimavrutham.
– Ananda lahiri, slokam 3

“Oh Gauri, daughter of Himavan, you are so auspicious with thamboolam (betel juice) in your mouth, streaks of collyrium in your eyes, kumkumam on your forehead, a necklace of pearls adorning your neck and a golden kanchi silk saree secured with a resplendent waistband around your broad waist. I am your devotee always (constantly meditating on you).”

These strongly held beliefs in auspiciousness are firmly rooted in the fabric of life in South India. Artists breathe life into these subconscious beliefs through choice of palette and techniques of weaving. The colours of the betel leaf (‘thamboolam’), the glorious form of the rising sun in ‘kumkumam’ and the splendour of the Goddess wearing it as her ‘tilakam’ ( a bindi on her forehead) are all perfect symbols of a colour that is a favourite for brides.

This month in Varna Sutra, we focus on the colour of passion – ‘Raktha’ (red) and the entire palette, encompassing varied shades of red and pink, the universal colours of love, passion and life.

The symbolic primary of Indian red can be found in two references – fire (‘agni’) and blood, the two natural elements that hold rich historical significance. ‘Agni’ or fire was perceived as a living being, and an early object of worship – as a source of light and heat like the sun. The mother goddess of India is depicted in red, because she is associated with the principle of creation.

Raktha or the colour red is the first colour humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced, and broke into different shades, first in painting and later in dyeing. Through the millennia it has been given primacy over all other colours. Red’s pre-eminence is found in every civilisation – in the bricks and tiles of buildings, fabrics and clothing, jewels and personal accessories.

The remnants of madder-dyed fabric in Harappa indicates the antiquity of vegetable dyes, colours and mordants (substance used to enhance the dye colour), and India’s mastery over natural dyes. The Coromandel Coast was famous for the red derived from the roots of “manjista” (commonly known as Indian madder, and the red dye derived from this medicinal plant). The British documented the famous “Madura Red” from the plant called Chay or “Chaya Ver” in Tamil. (Chaya ver is Oldenlandiaumbellata and the bright red is derived from its bark).


One of the unique things about the “real zari” in a kanjivaram sari is that a red thread runs in a single strand of zari. Not only does this lend a depth of colour to the zari, but it also adds a touch of the auspicious to the weave. In Tamil Nadu, using colour to make a statement is part of our social consciousness. We react not only to the visual impact of a colour, but to all its religious, social and historical connotations. And the local lexicon of shades is enriching, drawing from the various reds we encounter in daily life, mythology and the natural world. ‘Arakku’, a distinctive colour lying between red and maroon, marks the blossoming of pink into a deep red, and deserves a special mention for being a shade that is unique to Kanjivaram and an absolute favourite choice for the bridal sari.

Below, the very many shades of the colour wheel’s most passionate palette –

Kempu – the ruby red of uncut gemstones which adorned Tanjore paintings and temple jewellery of dancers

Arakku – the colour of lac (which is still used a sealing agent), largely preferred among most communities in Tamilnadu for the Muhurtham sari (worn by the bride on the wedding day while the mangalsutra is tied)

MilagaiPazham (Chilli) Red – The gorgeous and glowing red of chillies which makes brides stand out on their special day

Kumkuma Red – the vermillion colour of the powder used for religious markings, especially on our foreheads, to cover the highest of the chakras – the sixth chakra of the body locatedin the space between our eyebrows that is considered a “third eye”. A circular red dot, or ‘tilaka’ of ‘sindura’ of a married woman is a visual social statement.

Thakkali (Tomato) red – the fresh colour of ripened tomatoes with a tinge of orange

Brick Red – the earthen brownish red colour of ‘Sengal’ made from ‘Semman’, or red earth

Chemparuthy (Hibiscus) red – The bright reddish orange flowers used for daily worship finds a way into the palettes of our saris

Pattu Roja – the colour of the fragrant pink garden roses which are used in bridal garlands

Paneer Roja – the baby pink of the scented rose of South India used to make rose water and food flavourings

Vengayam (Onion pink) – The pastel pink of Indian onions

Thamarai (Lotus pink) – the sacred lotus is revered for its colour and is an ancient symbol with a divine connection to the gods Vishnu, Brahma and the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi. One sect of weavers of Kanchipuram isreferred to as “Padma Saliyars” where ‘padma’ means lotus

Rani Pink – The unique Indian colour referring to a shocking pink

Any discussion of this palette, must refer to the brilliance of naming shot colours, in which warp and weft yarns of two or more colours produce an iridescent hue.

Meenakshi – Deep pink shot with blue

In the traditional art forms of India, the artist’s purpose is always to articulate deeper meanings and to draw parallels with the divine. In weaving, this symbolism is translated into colours, motifs and patterns, each having rich cultural or social significance.

The Goddess of Kanchipuram, Kamakshi, is the main deity of worship for most weaving communities in the town. Initially the weavers, bearers of tradition and craftsmanship, wove fabrics for the temple gods and royals; choosing palettes to adhere to specific deities and their symbols. For the Goddess they primarily wove reds, along with greens and yellows. From the historic temple facades they drew inspiration for symbolic designs.

In the opening line of the dhyanaslokam of LalithaSahasranamam, the Goddess is addressed as “Sindooraruna Vigraham” – she takes the colour of the rising sun, a resplendent vermillion. The‘AbhiramiAndhadhi’ also starts in a similar way, with‘Uthikindra Sengkathir Ucchi Thilagam’ – the one who wears the rising sun as a mark on her forehead.

The worship of the Devi or Goddess in South India brings to mind her myriad auspicious and beautiful forms, most often adorned with hints of red and pink. Remembering the mythologies and traditions, the weavers offered their salutations by weaving these into their fabric. 

In Kanchipuram, after buying the all important ‘muhurtam’ wedding sari, people offer the first wedding invite to the Goddess Kamakshi, sometimes along with a silk sarias an offering. They seek her blessings by placing the “thali” (Mangal Sutra of the bride) at her feet and receiving it in return with the ‘prasadam’ that is the divine “Kamakshi Kumkumam”.


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