Color symbolism in India dates back to ancient times. It was mainly linked to the three Gunas (qualities) – the combinations of which directed the flow of movement in the Universe.
In this guide, we will dive deep into the color symbolism associations in the Indian subcontinent and discuss what the main colors represent traditionally. An understanding of this can help one understand India’s culture and also give an insight into its caste system.
The link between Gunas and Color Symbolism in Hindu Philosophy
As stated earlier, Indian philosophers believed there was a link between the creation of the Universe with the three Gunas. The three Gunas or qualities are: tamas or darkness, rajas or passion, and sattva or essence. This became the basis and origin of Indian color symbolism.
The link between the three Gunas and colors are as follows:
- Tamas – almost always black. The color of denial, negativity, death, and decay.
- Rajas – associated with red. The color of passion, anger, energy, fire, and activity.
- Sattva – associated with white. It is the exact opposite of black symbolism.
The Indian traditions started associating color with the emotional state. This gave the white color of sattva the highest honor. As a result; white started being associated with the Brahmins or priests – the caste known for its intelligence, privileges, and all things good. This association between white and priesthood and sattva remained unchanged for millennia.
What do different colors mean in Indian culture?
Let us take a closer look at the individual color meanings in India.
For Indians, the color red ignites a divine spark. This rich color is associated with Indian weddings. Traditional Hindu brides still wear red on their wedding day. The groom also adorns the bride’s forehead with red vermilion as a symbol of marriage, prosperity, fertility, and marital bliss.
Red is the symbol of the married woman whose husband lives. Widows were forbidden to wear red and were forced to wear white. Red is also the color of the base chakra, the mooladhara, which links us to Mother Earth and also to our survival instincts.
In Hindu astrology, red is also linked with Mangal Graha or planet Mars. When Mars dominates in one’s horoscope, that means there may be problems. A Manglik (a person where Mars dominates) can only marry a Manglik having a similar horoscope.
The feminine power or Shakti, the Divine Goddess Herself, is associated with red. Red is also the color of Kali’s tongue. It denotes anger, power, passion, blood, and feminine mysticism. Quite contradictorily, it also stands for love.
While the modern meaning of this color is peace, in India, traditionally, the color was linked to the higher castes.
White today, is linked with mourning. It is the color worn at wakes and funerals. In early times, Satis widows were forced to wear white and the color became associated with mourning and death for several decades until the cruel practice was put to an end.
As explained earlier, white also stands for Sattva or truth and detachment. It also represents calmness, brightness, and luminosity of knowledge. Enlightened gurus prefer wearing white robes even today.
Saffron or orange became the symbolic sacred color of Hindus. Yogis, gurus, and ‘men of God’ wear saffron robes paired with bright saffron turbans. Saffron is also the color of the Hindu fundamentalist political parties and the current ruling party. The color features dominantly in the Indian flag. Saffron color in the Indian flag symbolizes courage and renunciation.
The Sanskrit word for saffron is ‘naranga’. Its root meaning comes from Dravidian- naru– meaning fragrant. It is believed that, along with oranges (fruit), the word went on to be featured in Persian language. Later on, Italy, Hungary, and France also adopted it – the Italian ‘narancia’ and French arancia – stand for oranges. The Tamil language is one of the oldest Dravidian languages spoken in South India. It uses the word arancu (for orange) as well.
Today, we know that saffron or orange color is a combination of red and yellow and therefore it is a union of love and wisdom.
Green has varied symbolic associations in India. Predominantly though, it is the color of Islam. While Muslims are a minority in the country, green color associations with this religion are still strong and predominant.
In the Indian flag, a green-colored strip at the bottom stands for Nature. Deccani brides also wear green for symbolizing fertility- unlike red which is worn by brides elsewhere in the nation.
Blue has diverse meanings in Hindu traditions. Some Brahmins refuse to wear blue because the dye used in the color had the potency to kill organisms. On the other hand, there are some groups which wear blue to ward off the evil eye.
Blue is also the color of Lord Krishna. In religious art, the blue form of Krishna wearing yellow robes symbolizes the transcendent, infinite reality reduced to a finite being. Blue is also the color of the sky, the ocean, and ‘infinity’.
In Indian art and religion, yellow is the color of haldi or turmeric. Haridra, the Sanskrit word for turmeric, means ‘the golden one’. Yellow also represents earth and sand. The color has deep significance at Indian weddings. Brides wear yellow outfits during their ‘haldi’ ceremony when turmeric and sandalwood paste is anointed on their bodies for radiant glow.
Yellow has deep religious significance too. In the past, only the Vaishya Varna (the Vishnu worshiping sect of India) wore yellow. Lord Krishna’s pitamber (holy robes) are typically depicted in yellow to represent his transcendence from infinite to finite being.
In parts of Rajasthan, indigo tinted water is applied to the chest of a child suffering from a cold. This is because colds are believed to come from the North, from the sky, and the direction of the brahmans. Indigo color has the power to drive away impurity, evil, and disease brought about by the brahmans. A cotton thread dyed in indigo was also tied around a newborn’s waist to ward off evil eye.
So strong was the impurity of indigo that it even tainted its lighter shades. No Hindu woman would wear a light blue sari if her husband was alive because the color was associated with mourning. Widows were allowed to wear light blue plastic bracelets on special occasions.
In India, early color symbolism was distinctly linked to social groups, caste hierarchy, and birth. Each varna or caste had its symbolic color: white for brahmins, red for kshatriyas (the warriors), yellow for vaishnavas, and blue-indigo for the Shudras (the lowest caste – the untouchables). In general, it can be said that what was dyed was considered impure, while what was the purest (white) was unadulterated and connected to detachment.
Light, vivid, and bright colors like pink, yellow, red, and orange were also linked to happiness, prosperity, and passion. Turmeric yellow was linked to fortunate wives (soubhagyavati), and saffron yellow evoked the sacrifice of heroic warriors. When Rajput cities were besieged by enemies, they wore saffron or kesariya colors. Women called their husbands kesariya to denote their sexual potency. Dark colors like dark blue, dark green, and brown were linked to inferior status, misfortune, defilement, and infamy.
We hope you enjoyed this brief guide on Indian color meanings and symbolism. Next, read about the Indian color festival Holi.