Evidence of Indigo dyed fabric has been collected from Egyptian tombs nearly 5000 years ago. Samples of Madder dyed textiles recovered at the ruins of Mohenjodaro have been dated back to 1100 B.C.
Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), Madder (Rubifera cordolia), Myrobalan (Terminalia Chebula), Annato (Bixa Orellana), Pomegranate, Turmeric and Sappanwood are some varieties of dye producing plants that are also medicinal in nature. They have been cultivated in India, East Asia, South America and other parts of the world for millennia. The reds, blues and yellows obtained from these plants are striking and enduring.
Indian indigo was prized for its quality and purity and has been referred to as Blue gold in ancient travel and trade accounts.
India, was a powerhouse of natural dyeing in the ancient world, exporting much sought after plant based dyes and naturally dyed fabrics. The ancient Indian knowledge of dyeing with natural dyes and mordanting (fixing) colours to fabrics, using natural methods and materials was unsurpassed. Indian Chintz or Calico printed fabrics traded across the world, especially in Europe, during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The quality and technical expertise behind the dyeing of these fabrics created a sensational demand that has been recorded by some historians, to have sparked off the first organised transoceanic trade between Europe and Asia.
Much of the traditional dyeing knowledge has been lost today. The total acreage under plantation of crops such as Indigo and Madder are at an all time low. Only a few craft families, growers, interested and scientific persons remain the custodians of this privileged art.
Archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Royal Ontario Museum’s Indian Chintz Collection in Canada, The Vishwakarma textiles held by the Indian Ministry of Textiles and Ministry of Culture and the Calico Museum of textiles in Ahmedabad, hold some fine examples of the mastery of ancient Indians had over plant based colours.