Woad and Indigo: A Story of Two Cities, Two Continents and Decolonisation

— Shail Mayaram

Having lived with indigo for some four decades in India, I delighted in Erfurt’s own blue colour, called woad. Woad is a very distinct blue, as in the napkin that graced my table of my IBZ (the University’s International Guest House) flat, a Christmas gift from my friend, the KFG Fellow, Raminder Kaur. Every time I would look at it a range of life experience would come home, the artisanal mode of production of blue dye in the European Middle Ages but also the problematic Jewish-Christian living together and, for me, closer home, a century’s history of the making of an anti-colonial movement, which would shake and then demolish empires worldwide.

Blue at the guesthouse of Erfurt University

I had first been exposed to the many shades of indigo in the small town of Bagru, in the Jaipur District of northwest India. Bagru was part of the Sanganer assembly constituency of my mother-in-law, Indira Mayaram. I had been given the responsibility for her electoral campaign in this area in 1993 and walked from house to house in the block printer and other neighbourhoods and in villages close by. Bagru’s economy was dominated by the Chhipa community of printers. Sanganer was also known for its block printing, alas with chemical dyes, while Bagru’s distinctiveness came from the vegetable dyes, which continues to this day. Indigo was but one of the natural dyes used by the Chhipas – the others included rust, black, sand and pomegranate peel. The production was mostly home-based and catered then to the local and national market.

In the 1990s I furnished our home with bedcovers, cushions and curtains mostly printed by Ram Kishore Chippa, a keen Congress Party worker, who would later be awarded with the Padma Shri. I would often visit his factory-home. For many years I kept trying to persuade Ram Kishore to set up a museum dedicated to his art and craft and even wrote an outline for him to help structure the museum. The Bagru Fort, I had suggested to him, belonging to a Rajput noble, would be a great venue, if only he could be persuaded.

Recently I discovered a museum set up by Suraj Titanwala from the eighth generation of a Chhipa family, which had settled in Jaipur. Jaipur was the early modern planned city established in 1727 CE by Jai Singh, Rajput king and premier Mughal noble. The Amber/Jaipur kingdom’s prosperity came from its alliance with the Mughals and the many trades that had been invited from different parts of India.[1] As a result distinct neighbourhoods came into being for castes and communities including those for camel and elephant drivers, dyers and quilt carders and, above all, for gemstone cutters and polishers. Emerald was the premier gem for reason of which the anthropologist Lawrence Alan Babb titled his book Emerald City.[2] A barter system of exchange was prevalent and printed materials such as a shoulder cloth and turban were bought by privileged castes including money lenders.[3]

Many printers shifted to Sanganer and Bagru when their Jaipur neighbourhood became too cramped as they required large halls with the shift to printing tables and open spaces in which to dry fabrics. In addition to the Chhipa the production process also involves other artisanal castes, prominently the Rangrez and Nilgar (indigo) dyers, the Kharavadi block carvers and Dhobi (washer persons).

Suraj Titanwala and his son invested their life’s savings in the museum. They had by then become the exclusive printers of Anokhi, a boutique chain in India and abroad that specialises in garments using block-printed material. Anokhi blocks are exclusive and packed up in a box not to be used for other customers.

Saris drying in the sun in Bagru

Let us, however, move now to the production of woad in the early Middle Ages in Erfurt. The plant with yellow flowers thrived in the Thuringian region watered by the river Gera that runs through Erfurt (sadly for the Bagru printers their river has dried up). This particularly popular blue was processed in workshops. The Emperor Ludwig der Bayer granted Erfurt a first fair privilege, which was renewed annually. The city prospered with rich merchants, some of whom were also active in the woad trade.[4] 

Isatis tinctoria on the river Danube today. Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Erfurt has gained international recognition for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Medieval Jewish heritage. In 2023, the UNESCO recognized the various sites which reflect Erfurt’s rich and dense Christian-Jewish history. A car park behind Erfurt’s town hall covers the densely inhabited area partly consisting of Medieval Jewish homes, in direct neighbourhood to the Small Synagogue built in 1840. Another synagogue, commonly referred to as Old Synagogue from around 1100, was used as a dance house in the late 19th century.[5]

As in other cities and towns in central Europe, Jewish communities were blamed for the Black Death of 1138. After the 1221 pogrom against the Jewish community by Christians, another pogrom took place in 1349. Despite this recurrent violence, some Jewish houses and the Mikvhe for the ritual bath of women at the river Gera survived the following centuries. A stone inscription in Yiddish currently displayed in the window of a store in the market was discovered in the 1990s in a bricked-up cellar wall and bears the marks of a fire.

This woad store was built in Erfurt between 1540 and 1560. Today it is a theatre (Steffi Giebson, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Woad was grown and processed in Erfurt since before the 13th century CE. The entry of Indian indigo into the European market following the discovery of the sea route by the Portuguese sounded a death knell to continental production of woad. Indigo, a thriving product of Imperial trade would, however, soon become the very basis of its unravelling. Imported indigo became dominant, in Germany seemingly after the 30 Years War.

Armstadt’s House to the Palmtree is a typical building of a woad trader (Von Michael Sander – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the 20th century India had lost the indigo export market to the Caribbean and the US (followed later by the introduction of synthetic indigo). British colonial administration and British landholders in Northern India in the 19th into the early 20th century tried to push once again to increasing indigo production in India leading to pressure to make Indian peasants grow indigo for minimal compensation.

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi took up the oppressive conditions of indigo cultivating men, women and children at Champaran in Bihar, he would not only launch the first satyagraha of Indian nationalism but inaugurate the process of the decolonisation of Asia and Africa.

Gandhi in 1918, at the time of the Kheda and Champaran Satyagrahas

As historian Shahid Amin puts it:

The arrival of Gandhi in the district in April 1917, his desire to make inquiries into the indigo situation and his momen­tous disobedience of the order to vacate the district, the official turnaround in permitting his investigations, leading to the appointment of a high-powered commission, with Gandhi as the peasantsadvocate; the abolition of the existing variant of the tinkathia system of indigo cultivation on peasant holdings….These are the motifs common to most accounts of Gandhi in Champaran.[6] This, however, is to foreshorten his encounter with the indigo peasants, a move unwarranted by Gandhis own views and his exertions in the district. For, when in his Autobiography he writes of the Champaran inquiry as a bold experiment in Truth and Ahmisa, he is not referring solely to the voice of consciencethat urged him to disregard the firmān of the local officer to vacate the district. He seems equally to have had in mind the testimonies (izhār, bayān in Urdu legalese) his assistants Rajendra Prasad and half a dozen other lawyers elicited from the thousands of indigo-growing peasants.[7]

A century later it is hard to imagine that it was hundreds of illiterate, under confident downtrodden indigo peasants which were the impetus to the first of Gandhi’s movements.

To return to Amin’s description,

This very Gandhian mode of eliciting information was a radical move that encouraged the peasants to speak about their lived experience –bhogahuayatharth, as one would say in the correct Hindi of the region.  Gandhis Inquiry consisted in getting the testimonies of peasants, spoken in local Bhojpuri, translated and transcribed into English by his lawyer assistants.  The Inquiry was to be of a quasi-judicial in nature: it was open, peasants were to be cross-examined and their thumb-prints along with the signature of the recorder-transcriber formalising the averment. In a good many cases, peasants actually wrote up their signatures in the local kaithi script.There is even the solitary case of Gajadhar Mahton signing his name in English.

The papers document the forcible collection of hay and beatings of the cultivators by lower officials.

The introduction to Thumb Printed, a recent book that collates peasant petitions states, “It is rare indeed when thousands of peasants seek out a Mahatma-in- the-making and recount in telling detail the onerous conditions under which they toiled for the nilhe (sahibs) — the Indigo-sahibs of Champaran.”[8] The book has compiled documents comprising thousands of pages of testimonies that were discovered in 1950 when District Commissioner, Shridhar Vasudev Sohoni, came across a bundle of eight moth eaten folios who brought it to the notice of Rajendra Prasad, Gandhi’s trusted friend in Champaran and then President of India. Ironically, they were retrieved from the very same office from which Gandhi had been externed. In 1958 they were handed over to the National Archives of India. Eight volumes have been proposed. The first volume consists of 378 testimonies. A spectacular archive, without doubt.

So what is the sum of the relation between religion and the urban in these two “blue” cities? In Erfurt it is partly a tale of city formation and, the growth of an intellectual culture involving Jewish and Christian scholars and theologians and of thriving religious and secular institutions including a city council, churches and a university. It is also a tale of two communities both of which followed Abrahamic faiths, namely Christianity and Judaism. Later the Protestant Reformation would introduce a new heresy. The life of woad in Erfurt involved artisanal production, entrepreneurship, and trade. Today, only fragments remain of the beautiful creative life of woad sustained by museums and the high-end shops on the Krämerbrücke. Instead of woad the city is now celebrated for its flowers.

It is a more complex story in India. There is the violence of the colonial intervention, the subhuman conditions of cultivation and oppression of peasantry and labour. The project of living together of Hindus and Muslims in India for a millennium failed with the partition of the subcontinent in the mid-20th century that left a million dead and ten million displaced. But there is another story of communities living together in the city of Jaipur. Even as there was a build-up in inter-communal tension and episodes of violence in British India in the 1940s, in the princely state of Jaipur kingly protection of Muslims was ensured. In 1947-48 Maharaja Sawai Man Singh prevented both violence and the exodus of Muslims to Pakistan. Hindus, Jains and Muslims continued to be involved in the gemstone trade, in block printing and handmade paper cottage industries in Jaipur, Sanganer and Bagru. This largely peaceful cohabitation between communities would only be shaken in the 1980s with the growth of the biggest religio-political movement in India aimed at building a Ram temple in Ayodhya and tearing down a medieval mosque attributed to the Mughal conqueror, Babur, which has now come to fruition on January 22, 2024.[9]

In Bagru today, there are new futures as indigo becomes high fashion. Formerly artisanal trades have become commercialised but also involve persons of diverse caste backgrounds which is the case both with respect to block printing as also gemstone cutting. The once artisanal mode of production is now both online and global.

For a more detailed discussion of woad see “Erfurt’s Blue – Erfurter Blau” by Leon Lange, Maurane Tiavina Imanga Know King Rambelo and Annalena Grotz on this blog:

Woad has featured in earlier publications by the UrbRel group, most notably in “Erfurt – Die blaue Stadt/ Erfurt – The blue city” by Sara Keller, Martin Christ and Jörg Rüpke. The book can be purchased at Buchhandlung Peterknecht in Erfurt or accessed online.

[1] For the riches of the City Palace Museum see Chandramani Singh, Textiles and Costumes from the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum (Jaipur: Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust).

[2]Alan Babb, Emerald City: The Birth and Evolution of an Indian Gemstone Industry (New York: SUNY, 2013).

[3] This discussion draws upon a Museum publication by Suman Pandey, Chhipa Chhapa Chhapai: Traditional Hand-Block Printing and Dyeing of Bagru (Jaipur: Navjeewan, 2022).

[4] Martin Baumann / Steffen Raßloff (Hg.): Blumenstadt Erfurt. Waid – Gartenbau – iga/egapark (Schriften des Vereins für die Geschichte und Altertumskunde von Erfurt. Bd. 8). Erfurt 2011.

[5] Sara Keller, Martin Christ, Jörg Rüpke, Erfurt: The Blue City, Max-Weber-Kolleg, Universitat Erfurt, 2020 https://www.uni-erfurt.de/en/university/current/news/news-detail/erfurt-the-blue-city

[6] https://www.thebeacon.in/2022/05/02/testimonies-when-peasants-speak-the-earth-rumbles-gandhi-in-champaran/; https://hindi.thequint.com/amp/story/voices/opinion/neel-cultivation-in-bihar-shahid-amin-book-thumb-printed. In the latter piece Shahid Amin writes evocatively in Hindi of the arrival of a to-be-discovered Mahatma in Champaran and his desire to seek out indigo workers. This was the making of a spectacular archive.

[7] https://openthemagazine-com.translate.goog/essay/gandhi-in-champaran/?_x_tr_sl=en&_x_tr_tl=hi&_x_tr_hl=hi&_x_tr_pto=tc.

[8] Shahid Amin, Tridip Suhrud and Megha Todi, Thumb Printed: Champaran Indigo Peasants Speak to Gandhi (Navajivan Trust and National Archives of India 2022).

[9] For details see Ashis Nandy, Shikha Trivedi, Shail Mayaram, Achut Yagnik, Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and the Fear of Self (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).

All images by author. All rights reserved.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, March 22). Woad and Indigo: A Story of Two Cities, Two Continents and Decolonisation. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w2jq

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3 Responses

  1. deepika says:

    “Your blog on woad and indigo is both informative and captivating! The depth of information provided about the history, cultivation, and traditional uses of these natural dyes is truly commendable. The inclusion of vibrant visuals showcasing the rich colors derived from woad and indigo enhances the overall appeal of your content. Furthermore, your clear explanations make complex concepts easily understandable for readers of all backgrounds. Keep up the excellent work in educating and inspiring others about the fascinating world of natural dyes!”

  2. Céline Guilleux says:

    Dear Hypotheses blogger,

    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on en.hypotheses.org portal.

    Best regards,
    The Hypotheses team

  1. April 9, 2024

    […] Woad and Indigo : A Story of Two Cities, Two Continents and Decolonisation, par Shail Mayaram, sur le Carnet Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations ; […]

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