India: Home to Myriad Symbolic Colors
In a black-and-white world, India, with its dizzying sights, sounds, and colors, is a magical experience in radiant technicolor. Color has always been a large part of the Indian consciousness; in fact, it is ingrained in our DNA. This reverence for color stems from ancient Hindu philosophical beliefs, mythology, and historical events during colonial times. Our world is glorious and sacred because of life given to it by vibrant and intense colors. Transcending decorative values and emotional associations, Hinduism, a pure manifestation of nature, provides a spiritual meaning to almost every color.
Colors, when used to depict natural elements like the sun, the earth, and the sky, become the symbolic representation of that element possessing all its characteristics and functions. Each color holds a cultural, religious, traditional, and symbolic meaning which has been assimilated into Hinduism. India is a country steeped in religious traditions, and the powers and mythical lives of the Gods tell the story of the importance of color. Since ancient times, India has been home to a million interpretations of symbols and colors. The warm, bright, joyous colors of India connected to the stories and legends that bind its people, culture, and faiths have always mesmerized rulers, invaders, colonizers, and visitors. They offer kaleidoscopic insight into an almost perfect blend of collective history and individual modernism.
The use and interpretation of color can vary by region, and colors portray unique emotions to people living in different regional, geographical, and religious areas.
Color is synonymous with religion
Hinduism has a colorful and playful quality. It is not grave or righteous or puritanical. For Hindus, color is not just for decorative purposes but has a deeply symbolic and spiritual significance. In an ancient civilization steeped in religious beliefs like India, the origin of most colors lies in the legends and powers of its Gods. Religious undertones coexist with our perception of colors. The Hindus identify colors with philosophy and tradition and use repetitive colors in rituals.
India is also a land of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Colors like saffron and red play a vital role in all of them.
Use of color in Hot and Cold Dualism in Hindu Ritual
In Hindu philosophy, Nature or human existence is dualistic, i.e., fundamentally composed of two parts. This duality coexists and cannot be suppressed or separated. One can make an intelligent choice and use this duality at our discretion, but it does not free us from the consequence of that choice or action. The use of color in rituals to express a particular idea stems from the Hindu belief about the nature of heat. Essentially heat is that energy that can nourish or quash life. This heat must be controlled to become a source of enlightenment for us as, by itself, it can be dangerous. In ritual, heat must be encircled by cooling things. White and red are the pivotal colors of this concept. Objects red in color symbolize a ‘hot’ state while white color signifies a ‘cool’ one. Thus, the red used in worship typically occurs against a background of white.
Gender symbolism is also expressed through color. In Hindu weddings, the groom wears a cool white, and the bride wears a vivid red associated with fertility.
Three Gunas or qualities and the Three Colors
The Universe, or Creation or Nature, consists of three Gunas or qualities, and there is a link between Creation and the three Gunas. These Gunas are tamas, rajas, and Sattva, and they direct the flow of movement in the Universe. This became the foundation of Hindu color symbolism. The colors white, red, and black symbolize these three qualities that provide a balance to the natural world. Sattva, or goodness, serenity, and purity, is represented by white; Rajas, or energy and passion, is associated with red - the color of passion, energy, fire, activity, and anger; and Tamas, or inertia, apathy, and negativity, is almost always depicted by black.
In the Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna describes the three Gunas:
Purity, passion and inertia – these Gunas, qualities, O mighty-armed, born of Prakriti, bind fast in the body of the embodied, the indestructible. (XIV/5)
Knowledge arises from Sattva; greed from Rajas; heedlessness, delusion, and also ignorance arise from Tamas. (XIV/17)
Color and emotions
Indian tradition associates color with emotion. Colors not only define what we see but have also been proven to produce feelings that can bring about a noticeable change in our mental state. Each color emanates particular signals and is a harbinger of certain emotions that affect our mental, physical and psychological state of being. Colors can dramatically affect moods, feelings, and emotions to increase metabolism, raise blood pressure and even cause eye strain. Color is emotional – it brings people together. The proper use of colors creates a joyous environment.
The symbolism of color in caste identity
According to the Varnashrama Dharma, there are four basic ‘Varnas’ or castes in India. Color is distinctly connected to a person's or social group identity, caste hierarchy, birth, and religious affiliation. Each Varna had its symbolic color: white for Brahmins, the priestly class who performed rituals and was known for maintaining and imparting knowledge; red for Kshatriyas, the warriors; yellow for Vaishyas, the merchants and traders; and blue-indigo for the Shudras, the artisans, and laborers. Thus, the white color or sattva became most important as it was pure, unadulterated, and connected to detachment. This association between the colors and Varna has remained unchanged for millennia.
Color in festivals
Hinduism certainly has many more festivals than any other religious tradition. Hindu festivals are a fusion of spectacular religious ceremonies, rituals, processions, music, dance, drama, eating, drinking, promiscuity, and feeding the poor. Festivals are an expressive way to celebrate the many deities and the glorious heritage, culture, and traditions of Hinduism. Festivals purify, ward off negative influences, renew society, add structure to our social lives, connect us with our families and backgrounds, and revitalize the cyclic powers of nature to prevent it from stagnating. Each symbolic color provides us with a sense of beauty, ritual comfort, and tradition. An understanding of the symbolic colors is perhaps the only way to understand India’s diversity and pulse.
Holi: A Festival Celebrating Colors
Holi, the most joyous, spirited, and vibrant of all the festivals of India, is also known as the Festival of Colors. On this day, people forget old grudges and come together to sing, dance, laugh, and eat delicious food. Revelers crowd the streets and throw brilliant colors on each other to commemorate various Hindu legends. The exuberant clouds of yellow, pink, blue, and green in the sky provide a sense of beauty, ritual, well-being, and tradition and spread happiness, love, freedom, peace, and prosperity.
Holi is also called the Festival of Spring as it marks the end of winter, heralds the spring harvest season, and celebrates new life. It also alludes to more profound themes like the passing of time, the short-lived seasons, and the ostensible nature of our world.
Spices and colors
Most colors find their origins in the spices found in Indian cuisine, which is an explosion of fragrances, flavors, and colors. Herbs and spices like red paprika, yellow turmeric, orange saffron, and golden ‘garam masala’ are used the same way an artist uses his palette.
Here are some colors and their significance:
With its dazzling textiles and jewelry, exotic flora and fauna, exuberant billboards, gaudy hand-painted rickshaws, flashy trucks, and psychedelic posters of Gods, India is perhaps the most flamboyantly colorful place on earth. These colors are not just pretty - they have meaning. Colors are essential in how we understand and engage with the world.
Red symbolizes passion, power, strength, and purity and is exceptionally significant in the Hindu religion. It’s the color of life and felicitous occasions like weddings, festivals, childbirth, and general auspiciousness. Brides wear red on their wedding day, put red color in their hair, and place a red dot or Kumkum on their foreheads to signify purity, sensuality, and fertility. It is also the color of Shakti or prowess. Gods depicted in red are charitable, generous, brave, and protective and can destroy evil.
Saffron, composed of shades of golden-yellow and orange, is the most sacred color for the Hindus. It represents the fire that burns the impurities and cleanses itself in the process. It symbolizes purity, wisdom, and the quest for light—sages and ascetics who have renounced the world dress in saffron.
The natural world is green and suggests peace, happiness, purity, and harmony that the Gods bring to our world. The color green also represents fertility, life, and rebirth found in nature. The color is easy on the eyes and stabilizes the mind.
White is a mixture of seven different colors; hence it personifies the quality of each: purity, cleanliness, peace, and knowledge. It is diametrically opposite to red. Sarasvati, the Goddess of Knowledge, is always shown wearing a white dress and sitting on a white lotus.
White is also symbolic of the loss of life in Hinduism. White is the absence of color and repels all light and colors and, as such, is the acceptable color at ceremonies that mark a death in the family. Hindu widows wear white in grieving as it represents their need to detach themselves from the pleasure of participation in society and give back to the world.
Most of our planet is blue in color, with the oceans, rivers, and lakes making up seventy percent of it. Blue symbolizes the peacefulness of nature. Many Hindu Gods, such as Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva, are shown with blue skin, representing calm and intuition. Gods like Rama and Krishna, of stable mind and depth of character, manifesting the qualities of bravery, manliness, determination, and the ability to deal with challenging situations, are also colored blue.
Yellow stands for knowledge and learning. It symbolizes happiness, peace, stability, meditation, competence, and mental development and is often depicted in the clothes of Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Krishna, and Ganesha, and all wise sages. It represents the color of the sun and so also portrays its characteristics of light, warmth, and happiness.
A common thread of color runs through India
Color is perhaps the only common thread that ties together the deeply diverse people in a country as heterogeneous and culturally vibrant as India. The familiar, simple expressions of color hold together endless perspectives, lifestyles, and traditions. The symbolism of color influences all aspects of Indian lifestyle and culture, be it faith, politics, rituals, emotions, traditions, food, festivals, clothes, art, or decor. The only constant is color. All colors combine like the beautiful shades of a rainbow to add to India's rich character, history, and culture and influence people’s conscious and subconscious decision-making in their daily lives.
The story of India can be told through color.
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