Himalayan Indigo

Indigo has come a full circle. From its rich ancient history to becoming a means of colonial exploitation and now, once again becoming a symbol of sustainability and empowerment

By Avani Society

AVANI Foundation

A Tie and Dye Pattern on a Wool Scarf (2016-01-01)Avani Society

At a time when color was still a luxury, the art of dyeing in India, had reached heights of excellence, unparalleled anywhere else. And Indigo, became the color most coveted around the world.

Pieces of Indigo Dye Drying in the Shade (2016-09-21)Avani Society

The color of the sea and the sky, Indigo has forever been attached with the country of its origin. The name Indigo being derived from the Greek word ‘indikon’, meaning ‘from India’. Indigo cultivation is thought to have existed in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan and northwest India) more than 5,000 years ago. This knowledge of extracting blue color from green leaves of indigo was closely guarded within the families. It was processed and dried into hard blocks before being sent off on trade routes across Europe, where people devoid of the knowledge of how it was prepared would think of Indigo as a mineral.

Different Types of Indigo Plants Indigofera Tinctoria (2016-08-08)Avani Society

While there are different types of Indigo plants that can be used for dyeing, it is the true indigo, or Indigofera tinctoria, grown across India, that has been historically used for creating the best indigo dyes.

Different Types of Indigo Plants Polygonum (2016-08-06)Avani Society

Polygonum tinctorium, the Japanese indigo, was popular until the arrival of Indigofera tinctoria in Japan.

Different Types of Indigo Plants Strobilanthes (2016-08-07)Avani Society

Another indigo plant from Northeast India and its bordering countries.

Sowing the Indigofera Seeds in Chankana Village (2016-06-01)Avani Society


A famously tropical plant, Indigo grows well in ample sun and rain. The best time to sow the seeds is just before the monsoons, in the month of June.

Indigo Seeds (2016-05-01)Avani Society

Seeds of Indigofera tinctoria. Prior to planting them, they are soaked in cow urine for an hour or so, in order to make them pest and disease resistant.

Indigo Saplings (2016-05-06)Avani Society

Once the seeds are sown, it takes about a week for the first saplings to appear.

Weeding the Indigo Plants (2016-05-30)Avani Society

Basanti Devi of Chankana village, is seen here taking the weeds out from the new Indigo plants.

Women Harvesting the Indigo, Cultivated Amidst Millet Crops (2016-09-09)Avani Society

In about three months, just as they start flowering, the indigo plants are harvested.

Women Harvesting the Indigo, Cultivated Amidst Millet Crops (2016-09-10)Avani Society

As a member of the legume family, indigo forms a beneficial relationship with bacteria that fix nitrogen into the soil. It is, therefore, a great companion plant that improves soil quality for the surrounding plants.

Farmers who cultivated indigo for Avani this year reported that the food crops they grew along with indigo came out much better!

Processing the Indigo Dye Indigofera Soaking in the Water (2016-09-12)Avani Society


The harvested leaves are soaked in water overnight. Once they start to ferment in water, the indigo leaves start releasing the water soluble, blue chemical, Indican.

Processing the Indigo Dye Indigofera Soaking in the Water (2016-09-12)Avani Society

The leaves are pressed down with a stone to let as much color out in the water as possible. The leaves are allowed to ferment in water till bubbles start appearing on top. Once the bubbles appear, the leaves are taken out, leaving behind greenish blue water.

Removing the Indigo Leaves from the Drum, After Fermentation Squeezing Out the Leaves (2016-09-13)Avani Society

Indigo is a unique pigment because of its chemistry. The indigo leaves only carry the precursor to the pigment - the water soluble Indican.

Indican, after being oxidized completely changes to Indigotin, the actual dye pigment. This pigment is itself insoluble in water and hence requires a special technique of dyeing as well.

Oxidising the Indican in the Water View1 (2016-09-21)Avani Society


Oxidation can be done either manually or using a motor. At first the water is slightly murky green with very little blue. After a while, on coming in contact with oxygen, the indican turns into indigotin and the water starts turning into a deep blue before eventually turning into almost black. 

Adding Lime Water to the Drum. (2016-09-13)Avani Society

In order to set the right pH, before oxidation, lime water is sometimes added to the indican water.

Oxidising the Indican in the Water Indigo Oxidation Video (2016-09-21)Avani Society

The video shows two separate drums of indigo water being oxidized using a motor. The drum at the front shows the initial lighter blue color of indigo. The second drum shows a much darker shade, indicating that oxidation is almost complete!

Sieving Indigotin - The Indigo Dye Taking Out the Indigo Sediment (2016-09-22)Avani Society

This oxidized indigo water is left overnight for the indigo to settle down. The next day, water is decanted and the indigo paste at the bottom of the drum is collected and filtered through a fine cloth.

Sieving Indigotin - The Indigo Dye Collecting the Paste in a Fine Cloth (2016-09-22)Avani Society

Sieving and collecting the indigo paste in a fine cloth.

The Collected Indigo Paste Is Left Out to Dry Setting aside the filtered indigo paste for drying (2016-09-26)Avani Society

Collecting indigo paste in small batches.

The Collected Indigo Paste Is Left Out to Dry Indigo paste left in the seiving cloth to dry (2016-09-30)Avani Society

The collected indigo paste is left to dry in the sun.

A Ready Indigo Vat (2016-10-01)Avani Society

Indigo Vat

Since the indigo dye when exposed to oxygen is in an insoluble state, dyeing with indigo is not done in the traditional way. A continuously reducing vat is separately prepared using reducing sugars (like fructose, wheat bran, rice whiskey, et cetera) and pH balancing alkaline material (like soda, wood ash, lime et cetera). The sign of a ready vat is the presence of bubbles (that act as an oxygen barrier) and a metallic blue-green sheen on top. This can take about two weeks (depending upon the ingredients of the vat). The first dip in an indigo vat results in a greenish shade that becomes blue as soon as it comes in contact with oxygen.

Dipping a wool hank into a small indigo vat (2017-04-11)Avani Society

Here, a small hank of woolen yarn is lowered into a small indigo vat for dyeing.

The green-blue shade that is the color of dye in the vat (2017-04-11)Avani Society

The wool yarns upon soaking turn a dark greenish-blue color...

The colour turns bright blue once it comes into contact with the oxygen in the air (2017-04-11)Avani Society

...but turn a brilliant blue the moment they are taken out of the vat, and come in contact with the oxygen in the air!

Indigo Dyed Products Silk Wool Stole (2016-05-01)Avani Society

A double shaded indigo stole in silk, dyed and handwoven at one of the many Avani centers in Kumaon.

Indigo Dyed Products Tibetan Wool Cushion Cover (2016-01-01)Avani Society

A cushion cover made with local Tibetan wool, indigo dyed and handwoven at one of the many Avani centers in Kumaon.

A woman in Digoli village collecting the Indigo leaves from her farm. (2016-08-10)Avani Society

In the colonial history of India, Indigo had become the infamous crop, the desire for which led to the oppression of countless farmers. It was also the crop that ultimately led to the country's first ever non-violent revolt that brought together farmers across all the Indigo states. Today, the story is much different. The Himalayan Indigo is a project of empowerment. Indigo, like in the ancient times, is once again a respectable crop that is slowly leading to the prosperity of the people who cultivate it and the land that it is grown in. 

Credits: Story

Kumaon-Earthcraft Co-operative
Text: Prachi Gupta
Images: Amrita Bhattacharya, Kailash Upadhayay, Smriti Bharti, Prachi Gupta, Avani archives

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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