For all those INDIGO lovers out there! Have a glance at this amazing Indigo ride right from a seedling turning into an amazing dye for maybe… your denims or Japanese shibori or handcrafted Indian ethnic wears. The list is endless.


Makes Indigo a dye worth celebrating. Its called The King of natural dyes and is an integral part of Modern Wardrobes.


Natural indigo dye has a plant based origin. It can be obtained from various indigo bearing plants but most significantly indigo is extracted from the plants of the genus Indigofera, most famous being indigofera tinctoria. This shrub is called “true indigo“, is found in Asia and worldwide for many centuries. 

It has medicinal properties and contributes in soil fertility. It also serves as a nitrogen source to the soil and crop when used as a compost.


The dye is obtained from processing the leaves by fermentation and series of biochemical reactions in order to convert indican ( precursor to indigo dye) into indigotin (blue dye). The leaves are first soaked and fermented in water. When water turns blue the sludge is drained and dried into indigo cakes for easy transport and marketing.


This bright blue color is close to violet and find its place near color wheel blue (a primary color in the RGB color space). The actual color of the dye is different from spectrum indigo or pigment indigo. Even the color gives some major tones including:

  • Electric indigo –  brighter than the pigment indigo
  • Deep indigo –  ranging between electric indigo and pigment indigo.
  • Web color indigo –  Its hue is closer to violet than to indigo dye
  • Tropical indigo – called as añil in the Guía de coloraciones (Guide to colorations) which is widely popular in the Hispanophone realm.


Yes, we can say that we are the proud possessor of Indigo dye as the word INDIGO is derived from Latin for  “Indian“, or “from India“. This word interestingly travels all the way from Greeks to Latin and then to Portuguese and finally came up as “INDIGO”.

The ancient word for indigo is NILA OR NILI which is a Sanskrit word for dark blue. This term popularly spread from India eastwards into Southeast Asia and westward to the Near and Middle East, probably both through the pre-Islamic trading routes. The earliest mentions of nila is found in Atharva Veda and the Ain-i-Akbari.

However, this doesn’t mean that Indigo past was confined to Indian subcontinent. Nope. Egyptian, Mayan, African and Japanese were among the popular cultures to use this ancient dye for dying. They shares Indigo history as old as 5,000 years where Indigofera Tinctoria plant was used as a natural source of dye.
Ancient dye pits in Kano, Nigeria. Photo by Jonathan, Riddell, March 2009.


Earliest evidences reports :

  • Usage of indigo as a dye dates to 4000 BC in Huaca Prieta, in contemporary Peru. 
  • The blue-dyed stripes found in the borders of Egyptian linen mummy cloths from around 2400 BC signifies the ancient usage of indigo.
  • Archaeologists have found cuneiform tablets from the 7th century BC in Mesopotamia that mentions coloring of the wool from indigo dye.
  • From the site Rojdi (2500 -1700 BC), present-day Gujarat from the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization (3300 -1300 BC), archaeologists recovered seeds from at least 4 different species of the genus Indigofera.
  • Remnants of cloth dyed blue dated to 1750 BC from Mohenjo-Daro (present-day district of Larkana, Sindh, Pakistan).
Gold and silver on indigo-dyed paper- Frontispiece Depicting the Preaching Buddha

In the Middle Ages indigo becomes rare and luxury because of the heavy duties imposed by Persian, Levantine, and Greek merchants. This leads to the alternative production of indigo dye from woad plant (Isatis tinctoria).


Indigotin or powdered indigo is insoluble in water. For the dyeing process, it is converted into water-soluble form. Indigo is a Vat Dye that means obtained from Vat dyeing where dyeing takes place in a bucket or vat.

Indigo dyeing requires no mordant but need expertise or skills to successfully prepare and use on yarn. Here is the clip showing indigo dyeing process-

The process was demonstrated for the V&A by the Cheepa family, indigo dyers living and working in Kala Dera, Rajasthan. Here is the clip-



  • The ancient word for indigo dye isnili’ from the Sanskrit meaning dark blue from which the Arabic term for blue ‘al-nil’ is derived.
  • Pliny the Elder, Roman author and naturalist mentions India as the source of the dye after which it was named.
  • Marco Polo (13th century) was the first European to report on the preparation of indigo in India.
  • This natural coloring is known as tarum in Indonesia and nila in Malaysia.
  • Ancient Greece and Rome considered indigo a luxury product. It was once the color for Royals and Legacies.
  • Indigo was often referred to as Blue Gold as it was an ideal trading commodity; highly prized, compact and long lasting.
  • There are at least 50 different species of Indigofera growing in India.
  • The dye was imported to Europe from India.
  • Synthetic indigo was first created in 1880 by Adolph von Bayer. 


The great Indigo Rebellion was an iconic movement that happened in 19th century West Bengal, India (where indigo plantation started in 1777) by the peasants against British planters who had forced them to grow indigo instead of food crops under terms that were greatly unfavorable to the farmers.

It was so because indigo planting was commercially much profitable and there was tremendous demand for blue dye in Europe. But the peasants were oppressed. They were burdened under high rates of interest, tax rates, selling indigo at non-profitable rates and brutal harassment, punishments and suppression if farmers refused to grew indigo.

The revolt started from the villages of Gobindapur and Chaugacha but spread rapidly in Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, Pabna, Khulna, and Narail.

The BLUE REBELLION was a success and had a great impact on the government which immediately created the “Indigo Commission” in 1860. It was an initiative of Nawab Abdul Latif’s for putting an end to the repressions of indigo planters.

NEEL-DARPAN: Dinabandhu Mitra , an employee of the Raj, wrote a play NEEL DARPAN or The Indigo Mirror in 1858-59 portraying the indigo farmers’ situation during British Raj. It displayed misery of farmers suppressed with all debts and inadequate payments. The play earned huge attention and laid impact on the peasants as well as Bengali leaders to support indigo revolt.


Once the countryside crop of Bengal and Bihar, Indigo is now a widespread commercial crop. Its stretches continues from Tamilnadu, Andhra pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab to Himalayan regions of Uttarkhand and beyond. Species vary depending upon the climate and regional soil but everywhere the yields prove out to be profitable and resourceful.

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ at Chicago Botanic Garden

The crop is tropical, sustainable, non-polluting and improves soil ecology. Present day approach for Eco-friendly textiles makes indigo a profitable crop to opt for. This is the time to revive the old cropping patterns and upgrade the technology involved in indigo cropping so as to meet the immense demand of indigo in the apparel, textiles and cosmetics industry.

Revival might be difficult initially because indigo is a labor-intensive crop, but with proper governmental strategies, local level governance, NGOs role and other organisational support, farmers may be able to yield maximum profit incomes and contribute to the local crafts while also greening the topography of wastelands.


Bio Indigo or Natural Indigo dye, being bio-degradable, non-toxic, non-allergic is comparatively Sustainable to Synthetic Indigo Dye. Various scientific studies came up with the environmental impacts of the Bio Indigo dye.

AMA Herbal Laboratories Pvt Ltd have evaluated environmental impacts of Bio Indigo Dye using Life Cycle Assessment approach as per ISO 14040/44 standard. The findings suggests following:

“Dyeing with Bio Indigo dye has 16% lesser acidification potential, the global warming potential was 9% lower, the primary energy demand was also 8% lower whereas the fresh water demand was 0.4 % higher. The difference in the positive impacts was in the range of 0.4%-23% for various environmental factors defining sustainability of denim.

Additionally, the study was used to compare environmental impacts for production of 1 kg of both the Dyes. Except for fresh water consumption, all the other environmental impacts are 10-100% lesser in case of Bio Indigo Dye. Another interesting advantage of natural dyes is that they provide higher UV absorption in the fabrics they are used on. By wearing clothes dyed naturally, you are able to more fully protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.”


Indigo talks can be never ending…. its the color carrying legacies of expensiveness as gold…royalties of Kings…the color of freedom and sacrifice….and the warmth of “swadeshi“….

This Eco-friendly crop must be appreciated and promoted in every possible way creating the horizon of possibilities for the local artisans, peasants, hand loom workers, and every single person out there encouraging this blue heritage.

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13 thoughts on ““INDIGO” – THE KING OF NATURAL DYES”

  1. I read about the indigo revolt in history books in school. Didn’t know Neela meant indigo and not sky blue.

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