The Magic of Indigo

Sumba_Hinggi (12)

One of nature’s rarest colors is arguably the most historically significant, becoming so valuable that the brutal, mercenary production methods employed in Bengal, India, led to the Indigo Revolt of 1859.   The non-violent revolt, which some say was the forerunner of Gandhi’s later efforts, resulted in the Indian government’s Indigo Commission which was charged to investigate. The Commission then reported that “heretofore not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood”.  The Revolt was successful to the extent of virtually eradicating indigo production in Bengal by the end of 1860.

While yellow is obtained from many plants and red from both many plants and insects, indigo has one source in nature - the indigofera plant.  It is the world’s oldest dye and the only one from nature which will dye all fibers. Harvesting and processing the indigo plant to produce usable indigo is so critically demanding and complicated it seems almost magical when it actually works.   And, for one’s work, if everything goes well, you might get 1 kilogram of indigo for every 200 kilograms of raw indigofera. It’s rarity led to its being variously called “blue gold” and “the devil’s dye” which resulted in some claiming it brought good luck and some the opposite.  Some cultures consider blue eyes to be sinister.

Cosmetically, it has been used in every way imaginable, from eye shadow and hair colorant to tattoos and to enhance scarification patterns.  Medically, it was used as an antiseptic, for arthritis, for eye infections, as a wound salve, for snakebite, as a diuretic, for tapeworm, as an insect repellant, and many other ways.  In the realm of sex, it saw use as a stimulant, fertility enhancement, a contraceptive, (when that failed, it might become an abortifacient), and as a cure for syphilis. Various other uses were as incense, for barter, and even as currency.

In Indonesia, women were largely responsible for indigo production and use. They were empowered thereby because it was such a valuable commodity and had power in so many arenas.  Much care was required as the volatile pigment was thought to be sensitive to the sex, age, and bodily conditions of anyone nearby. If dyeing results were unsatisfactory, the unwanted result might be explained through reference to any such factors.  It was thought to have the power to produce disease and madness in men, so they would give it a wide berth. Fertile women stayed clear for fear of affecting the dye and pregnant women stayed away for fear of it affecting the unborn. Indigo, thusly, afforded power of negative and positive forms to women - as healers and sorceresses.

It is not surprising then that the ominous but essential womb-like dye pots were kept in isolated areas of the family compound.