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Chay red: forgotten dye of the coromandel coast.

The high reputation of the much sought-after cotton painted cloths of the Coromandel Coast was commonly attributed to the quality of the red dye from the root of the historic dye-yielding plant Oldenlandia umbellata Linn., Rubiaceae, (1) commonly known as Chay, chayaver (chaya/saya = colour, ver = root), or Indian Madder. Chay is also referred to as East Indian Madder and Ostindischer Krapp. (2) Chay-root produces various shades of red depending on the strength of the chemical alum that fixes dye onto fibre in a process known as mordant-dyeing. References in literature to dyeing and painting cloth with chay-root appear from the 17th to 19th century. However, extant painted textiles that were traded to Southeast Asia from the Coromandel Coast pre-date 17th-century written records. With the introduction of aniline dyes in the mid-19th century, the use and knowledge of dyeing with natural dyes declined over time.

Chay, a common biennial plant found in Burma (Myanmar), India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), thrives on sandy soil. It grows wild, abundantly, in the Puri district of Orissa (Odisha) and in Bengal (Bangladesh and West Bengal) and was extensively cultivated on the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts. Although the plant was widespread in some parts of Bengal and Puri, it was not employed as a dye there but a considerable trade existed for chay-roots, (3) the chief market being Madras (Chennai). (4)

Chay-roots are usually about 10-12 inches long and 1/8 inch thick, somewhat straight, stiff, tough and wiry and with few or no lateral fibres (figures 2-4). When fresh, they have an orange colour; but when dried and stored, they assume a yellowish-grey hue. Boiling them in water gives a pale yellow extract, but if alkali is added a blood-red decoction is soon obtained. The colouring principles seem to reside chiefly, if not entirely, in the bark of the root. (5) The main colouring component of chay is alizarin and a distinguishing characteristic is the lack of secondary colorant on a fibre dyed in chay, though other components may be found in the dyeing liquor. (6)

The cotton painted textiles of the Coromandel Coast popularly known as chintz, palampore or pintados, are finely drawn with wax resist--known in Tamil as mezhuguezhuthu (mezhugu=wax, ezhutu=writing) (7)--with a predominant use of chay red and indigo blue dyes. Extant painted textiles with chay provide fine examples of its richness and evidence of the knowledge of dyeing among the textile-producing community. Details of the processes of Coromandel Coast painted cotton textiles using chay-root dye have been described in a number of eyewitness records. There are inconsistencies in these accounts, partly due to misunderstandings of observation and partly due to regional variations of practice and of materials locally available. (8)

The primary purpose of European documentation of chay-root mordant-dyeing techniques was to emulate the methods in their respective countries; however, they never succeeded. George Watt mentions that "Chay-root rapidly deteriorates when kept in a dark place, such as the hold of a ship, whence probably the want of success that has attended at dyeing with it in Great Britain." (9) William Roxburgh wrote: "I have tried various experiments to enable me to dye red with this root (I may say two or three hundred) in a more expeditious and less troublesome way than what the natives follow, but all with no satisfactory success." (10)

William Methwold, who served as an agent for the English East India Company at Masulipatam (Masulipatnam) between 1618 and 1622, explained that this superiority derived from: "a plant which growth only in this country (Golconda), called by them Chay, which dyeth and stayeth a perfect red, with them in as great account as scarlet with us...", (11) and " other place affords the like colour". (12) John Irwin and Katharine Brett comment that Methwold was incorrect in saying that the chay plant grew only in Golconda as it was widely cultivated on the Madras (Coromandel) Coast. What distinguished the chay of Golconda was that in this region it grew wild on the tidal flats of the Kistna (Krishna) delta, where the estuarine soil contained a high proportion of broken or rotten shells. These were a rich source of calcium, recognized as a unique fixing agent for madder-type dyes. (13) In spite of the superior and distinctive qualities of Northern (Golconda) chay compared to Southern (Madras) chay, it is not possible to assume that all chintz with the best reds were necessarily of the Northern region. The quality of the dyestuff varies from region to region, as do the properties of water.

The chemistry of fixing chay red onto cotton was only known to the dyers of the Coromandel Coast, who were well aware that it could not be fixed on silk. Hendrick Adrian van Rheed wrote: "I have always been surprised about the beautiful colours which are produced here on the cloth with white backgrounds and have often wondered whether this could be done also in silk fabrics." (14) The study of Perkin and Hummel explains the chemistry of dyeing with chay (15) and how deep-red develops with an alkaline mordant. Cotton can withstand alkaline dyeing whereas high alkalinity will weaken or even disintegrate silk fabric. This explains why the intricately painted textiles were always of cotton and not of silk.

The origin of chay and of mordant-dyeing is currently unknown. The destructive nature of the monsoon climate has, unfortunately, erased from India nearly all material evidence of textiles preceding the 16th century. It is therefore impossible to trace the stages by which India developed the basic technique of mordant- and resist-dyeing to the sophisticated level of painting on cotton fabric.

Chay dye first attracted the special attention of A.G. Perkin (16) and J.J. Hummel during the colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London in 1886. A small sample was then obtained from George Watt who was in charge of the Economic Court and preliminary dyeing experiments indicated that it might well be worth a detailed chemical examination. Ultimately larger samples were obtained from India, through the kindness of W. Reid of Bombay, R.O. Campbell and Binny and Co. of Madras in 1893 so that exhaustive chemical analyses could be carried out. (17)

Scientific analysis of identifying chay dye on historic textiles was carried out at the Calico Museum of Textiles, (18) India in 1988, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London'9 in 1993 and the Kelsey Museum, United States (20) also in 1993. In 2011, the extant cotton painted textiles that were traded from the Coromandel Coast to Southeast Asia, now in the collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, were also analysed and the results verify the use of chay dye (figures 1 and 5). (21)

Though the art of dyeing with chay-root declined by the end of the 19th century, research on reviving chay dye is ongoing. Extraction of dye from chay-root has been successful at laboratory leve1; (22) however fixing the extracted dye onto cotton cloth still remains a challenge. (23)

Caption: 2. Illustration of Oldenlandia umbellata in Plants of the Coast of Coromandel by William Roxburgh, 1795.

Caption: 3. Herbarium sample of Oldenlandia umbellata, Botanical Survey of India, Coimbatore. Photograph: V.R. Sai Darshan.

Caption: 4. Oldenlandia umbellata in the wild, Women's Christian College Campus, Chennai. Photograph: V.R. Sal Darshan.

Caption: 5 Textile with cockerel motif, Coromandel Coast, c. late 16th--early 17th century. Cotton, resist drawn, mordant painted and dyed; 111.8 x 391.2 cm. Photograph courtesy Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. 2009-02041.


Amrita Mukerji, SUTRA, Kolkata, for encouraging me to write this essay on chay dye. Lynda Hillyer, Former Head of Textiles Section, Conservation Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, who helped getting reference material from London and Sherrie jesulyn David, Assistant Professor, Department of Botany, Women's Christian College, Chennai, for helping in identifying a live plant of Oldenlandia umbellata in the wild.


(1.) A.G. Perkin and J.J. Hummel, "The Colouring and Other Principles Contained in Chay Root", Journal of Chemical Society, LXXXVIII, 63, 1893, p. 1160.

(2.) Ruth Barnes, Indian Block-Printed Cotton Fragments in the Kelsey Museum, The University of Michigan, Vol. 8, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993, p. 94.

(3.) George Watt, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India, Vol. V, Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, India, 1885, p. 481.

(4.) Perkin and Hummel, 1893, p. 1161.

(5.) Ibid., p. 1162.

(6.) Barnes, 1993, p. 94.

(7.) S. Katiresu, "Dyeing with Chaya Root as Practised in the Northern Province of Ceylon", reprinted from the Ceylon National Review, 1906, p. 215.

(8.) John Irwin and Katharine B. Brett, Origin of Chintz, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970, p. 7.

(9.) Watt, 1885, pp. 481-82.

(10.) William Roxburgh, Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, London: Shakespeare Printing Office, 1795, p. 4.

(11.) W.H. Moreland (ed.), Relations of Golconda, London: Hakluyt Society, Second Series, Vol. 66, 1931, p.35.

(12.) Letter from Masulipatam Factors dated October 25, 1634, in William Foster (ed.), English Factories in India, Vol. V: 1634-36, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1911, p. 46.

(13.) Irwin and Brett, 1970, p. 10.

(14.) John Guy, Indian Textiles in the East: From Southeast Asia to Japan, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2009, pp. 35-36.

(15.) Perkin and Hummel, 1893, p. 1160.

(16.) A.G. Perkin was the second son of Sir William Henry Perkin who, in 1856, discovered mauveine and went into the industry producing the first synthetic dye.

(17.) Perkin and Hummel, 1893, p. 1161.

(18.) B.V. Kharbade and O.P. Agrawal, "Source Analysis of Natural Dyes in Indian Historic Textiles", Studies in Conservation, 33, 1, International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1988, p. 1.

(19.) G.W. Taylor, "Red Dyes on Indian Painted and Printed Cotton Textiles", Dyes in History and Archaeology, 12, Brussels, 1993, p. 24.

(20.) Barnes, 1993, p. 94.

(21.) Analysis unpublished, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

(22.) L. Siva Ramamoorthy, Sean Mayes, Shuvra Kanta Behera, C. Rajasekaran, "Anthraquinones Dye Production Using Root Cultures of Oldenlandia umbellata L.", Industrial Crops and Products, 37, 1, 2012, p.415.

(23.) Experiments in extracting the dye from the chay root and fixing the extracted dye onto cotton cloth were carried out by L. Siva Ramamoorthy in the laboratory at the Vellore Institute of Technology, Tamil Nadu, 2013.
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Title Annotation:Bessie Cecil
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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