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The Alchemy of Colour in the Gurmukhi Tradition I: Laal (Red)

Updated: May 24


This series of blogposts are based around the course 'Alchemy of Colour' which Jaswinder Kaur, a recipient of the Baba Shaam Singh Sevapanthi scholarship, completed in 2019. The course was held at the Prince's School of Traditional Arts and taught by Dr David Cranswick.






Introduction Alchemy is a word which many would not associate with Gurbani philosophy. Yet, if one reads Gurbani carefully, it becomes clear that there are references made to alchemy in every Raag and almost every composition within the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The alchemy of colour is particularly very significant in Gurbani. To be able to understand the alchemy of colour within the Sikh context, it is first important to explore and ascertain the meaning of alchemy in the Sikh diaspora.

Alchemy is often described as the precursor to modern chemistry. It originates from ‘Al-kimiya’, an Arabic word. Although general perception of the word is regarded as a form of magic, alchemy can be better described as a science which studies physical materials to reveal their meta-physical properties. Alchemy reveals an ancient wisdom and natural philosophy relating to the basic transformation of matter (using different elements and materials) into an ‘energy’ including as the creation of exquisite colour pigments used for painting. Such pigments were merely made from coloured earths or semiprecious stones ground into a fine powder and mixed with a relevant medium which will be explored later. Some pigments were extracted by undergoing a chemical creation with other ingredients, some highly toxic. Nonetheless, these often produced the most brilliant colours.


Many informed artists who had the understanding and knowledge of such spiritual connotations, succeeded in utilising such materials or elements in their creative work to invoke a particular mood and emotion. By identifying and acknowledging this intrinsic knowledge, the artist had the utmost regard and reverence for the primary sourced material. Even Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of all time, made a profound and philosophical statement when creating his sculptures. He revealed that the form already exists in the rock he was sculpting and that he was just chipping away at the rough edges.

Alchemy in Gurbani One of the most well-known concepts of alchemy is the philosopher's stone or ਪਾਰਸ. The philosopher's stone is a mythical substance which is able to transform other metals into gold simply through the power of touch. This word alone is found over 40 times in Guru Granth Sahib. ਪਾਰਸ ਮਾਨੋ ਤਾਬੋ ਛੁਏ ਕਨਕ ਹੋਤ ਨਹੀ ਬਾਰ।।

Just like how copper becomes gold in no time at all once it is touched by the philosopher’s stone.


ਭਗਤ ਰਵਿਦਾਸ, ਗਉੜੀ ਬੈਰਾਗਿਣ, ੩੪੬

Having briefly highlighted the concept of ‘alchemy’, we can now look at its relevance in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and how colour pigments are treasured within the holy scripture. Colour, although appreciated for its aesthetic qualities today, was, during the Middle Ages, valued for its material, scientific, and medicinal properties. The creation of colour pigments and inks formed part of the science of alchemy, and as mentioned earlier, was the foundation of modern chemistry. By altering matter sourced from plants, minerals or metals to produce colour, alchemy became closely linked to artistic tradition.

Sacred Art Pure colour pigments are derived from raw earth materials, created from the life source, ‘The Mother’ (ਮਾਤਾ ਧਰਤਿ). Rocks, metals, plants and insects are the key materials involved in producing traditional art. In particular, the very extraction of pure pigments from rocks to produce paint is believed to be a sacrosanct act, as rocks and are regarded and viewed as sacred. At least 95% of the main generic palette of colours can be extracted from seven main metals from earth. Traditional artists like the Australian aborigines would use ancestral religious and ritualistic methods to collect the colour for their paintings, in particular red ochre, sometimes by travelling long distances over two months to a sacred site to extract the colour. Today, pure pigments are quite expensive to produce because of the intense labour involved in its production, hence they are a highly- priced commodity. This is in contrast to the manufactured pigments found readily available today which are often plastic derived thus causing damage by polluting the water system. Today, mother nature is being mercilessly looted and polluted, and by naturally sourcing pure colour pigments, humanity can once again re-connect with nature. By doing so, one experiences a holistic and sacred wisdom ensued by a deep internal spiritual transformation.

However, there is a natural order when creating pigments and certain systematic approaches must be observed. There is a logic and reasoning to it. An example would be that it is essential that whenever there is a need to stir a pigment, the stirring must always follow a clockwise direction. This is a tradition intrinsic in most cultures because this movement is interpreted as positive and pure. Stirring anticlockwise is perceived as regressing to the ‘source’, and/or invoking the darker forces. The next part of this article will highlight some key traditional colours and further information on their material origins in relationship with the Gurmukhi tradition as well as their importance in wider traditions of alchemy as practiced in different cultures.

Raag and Colour During the compilation of the Adi Granth, Guru Arjan Dev ji arranged all the shabads (compositions) into ‘Raags’ which were designed to evoke a certain range of moods or feelings. The word ‘Raag’ is often translated to denote a musical mode, however, the literal meaning of ‘Raag’ is colour. Therefore, different raags are associated with different colours, which then can be perceived to relate to different moods. There is an artistic tradition where raags are often depicted in paintings by artists using certain colours and symbols to represent the emotions of the raag.

Red One of the clearest examples of the raag colour relationship can be found in Raag Suhi. Suhi literally translates to the feminine word for red and is therefore closely associated the colour. Within the cultural world of South Asia, red is associated with marital love. It is the traditional colour worn by brides. Therefore, it is not surprising and it is by no accident that Raag Suhi contains the Lavan (wedding) and Kurmai (engagement) shabads, including numerous other compositions focusing on the theme of marriage and where the colour red is explored. Many of these references relate to the colour red obtained from the safflower plant, a colour denoted by ‘Suha’ and also ‘Kusumbh’.

ਸੁਣਿ ਬਾਵਰੇ ਤੂ ਕਾਏ ਦੇਖਿ ਭੁਲਾਨਾ ॥ Listen, madman: gazing upon the world, why have you gone crazy? ਸੁਣਿ ਬਾਵਰੇ ਨੇਹੁ ਕੂੜਾ ਲਾਇਓ ਕੁਸੰਭ ਰੰਗਾਨਾ ॥ Listen, madman: you have been trapped by false love, which is transitory, like the fading color of the safflower. ਕੂੜੀ ਡੇਖਿ ਭੁਲੋ ਅਢੁ ਲਹੈ ਨ ਮੁਲੋ ਗੋਵਿਦ ਨਾਮੁ ਮਜੀਠਾ ॥ Gazing upon the false world, you are fooled. It is not worth even half a shell. Only the Name of the Lord of the Universe is permanent. ਥੀਵਹਿ ਲਾਲਾ ਅਤਿ ਗੁਲਾਲਾ ਸਬਦੁ ਚੀਨਿ ਗੁਰ ਮੀਠਾ ॥ You shall take on the deep and lasting red color of the poppy, contemplating the sweet Word of the Guru's Shabad. ਰਾਗੁ ਸੂਹੀ ਛੰਤ ਮਹਲਾ ੫ ਘਰੁ ੧, ੭੭੭ Safflower The Safflower produces a mixed range of colours, such as red, pink and yellow, the colours extracted are dependent on how they are prepared and the pH of the dye solution. Initially, the colours which the safflower can produce are strong and vibrant in tone, but these can fade quickly in natural sunlight and can easily be washed away. Due to this temporary and surface-level nature, the word Kusumbh is therefore used as a by-word for Maya or false love, to highlight a temporary state.

ਕਚਾ ਰੰਗੁ ਕਸੁੰਭ ਕਾ ਥੋੜੜਿਆ ਦਿਨ ਚਾਰਿ ਜੀਉ ॥ The colour of safflower is transitory; it lasts for only a few days. ਸੂਹੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ਘਰੁ ੯, ੭੫੧

A safflower flower head in bloom

Although the safflower was not studied as part of the course, it is prominent and important dye to reference as its colour was used in the Gurmukhi tradition, in particular, it was often used to dye paper into a salmon-pink colour before being written on. Further information on the use of safflower as a dye can be found via the link below: https://maiwahandprints.blogspot.com/2013/07/natural-dyes-safflower.html

Manjitha In contrast to the temporary colours of Kusumbh, Gurbani mentions a strong and permanent deep red colour which is produced by the roots of the madder plant, the Manjitha. This colour symbolises and signifies true and permanent eternal love in contrast to the fleeting desires represented by Kusumbh.

ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮਾ ਹਰਿ ਰੰਙੁ ਹੈ ਹਰਿ ਰੰਙੁ ਮਜੀਠੈ ਰੰਙੁ ॥ The Lord's Name is the Love of the Lord. The Lord's Love is the permanent color. ਗੁਰਿ ਤੁਠੈ ਹਰਿ ਰੰਗੁ ਚਾੜਿਆ ਫਿਰਿ ਬਹੁੜਿ ਨ ਹੋਵੀ ਭੰਙੁ ॥੧॥ When the Guru is totally satisfied and pleased, He colors us with the Lord's Love; this color shall never fade away. ||1|| ਰਾਗੁ ਸੂਹੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੪ ਘਰੁ ੧, ੭੩੧


Madder roots prior to being processed.

A highly detailed description of producing both kusumbha and manjitha is found in the writings of Bhai Gurdas where the plant is described as the epitome of prem and humility. ਰੰਗੁ ਮਜੀਠ ਕਸੁੰਭ ਦਾ ਕਚਾ ਪਕਾ ਕਿਤੁ ਵੀਚਾਰੇ। Why is madder permanent and safflower temporary? ਧਰਤੀ ਉਖਣਿ ਕਢੀਐ ਮੂਲ ਮਜੀਠ ਜੜੀ ਜੜਤਾਰੇ। The roots of madder spread in earth, it is first brought out and put into the mortar and is pounded with wooden pestles. ਉਖਲ ਮੁਹਲੇ ਕੁਟੀਐ ਪੀਹਣਿ ਪੀਸੈ ਚਕੀ ਭਾਰੇ। Then it is crushed using a heavy grinding mill. ਸਹੈ ਅਵਟਣੁ ਅਗਿ ਦਾ ਹੋਇ ਪਿਆਰੀ ਮਿਲੈ ਪਿਆਰੇ। It further suffers the pain of getting boiled in water and then only is it used to adorn the clothes of the beloved. ਪੋਹਲੀਅਹੁ ਸਿਰੁ ਕਢਿਕੈ ਫੁਲੁ ਕਸੁੰਭ ਚਲੁੰਭ ਖਿਲਾਰੇ। The safflower comes up from the upper portion of the plant Carthamus tinctoria and yields its deep colour. ਖਟ ਤੁਰਸੀ ਦੇ ਰੰਗੀਐ ਕਪਟ ਸਨੇਹੁ ਰਹੈ ਦਿਹ ਚਾਰੇ। By adding acid to it, the clothes are dyed, but like false love, the colour remains only for a few days. ਨੀਵਾ ਜਿਣੈ ਉਚੇਰਾ ਹਾਰੇ ॥੬॥ The lowly born ultimately wins and the so-called high up gets defeated.


ਭਾ: ਗੁਰਦਾਸ ਜੀ, ਵਾਰ ੪ (੬) As well as being used to dye textiles, the madder plant can also be used to dye a white pigment into red paint pigment. Further in-depth and technical research on Gurmukhi manuscripts could help reveal and enlighten us with the areas where the historic scribes and artists sourced their red paints and inks from.

Mineral sources of red

As well as the previously plant based dyes of manjith and kusumbh, various other red colours can be obtained from mineral sources. In South Asia, Mercury Sulphide, known as Hingula, Sindur or Singarf, is regarded as an important historic mineral. It can be obtained naturally from the ground (Cinnabar); however it was produced by combining mercury and synthetic sulphur (known as Vermillion). Vermillion (synthetic Cinnabar) is produced by an explosive union of sulphur (yellow colour) and mercury (silver colour). During the times of ancient Egypt, this responsibility lay solely on the high priests, who were the only ones with the status high enough to embark on uniting the mercury with the sulphur. It was considered an extremely religious and sacred ritual. The Egyptian priests would fast for many days and would wait for the solar planets to align before offering their ritualistic prayers. Only then would the unification of the two elements to make vermillion be completed. As previously highlighted, most colours can be produced from seven of the earth’s metals. There is a cosmological belief that these seven metals correspond to the seven planets and the seven days of the week. Each of the seven planets signifies a different level of energy and consciousness within the seven chakras. Mercury, is listed as one of these seven metals. The symbolic importance of mercury is linked to the planet which it is named after, known as ਬੁਧ in Panjabi. The word for Wednesday “ਬੁਧਵਾਰ” comes from this.


ਬੁਧਵਾਰਿ ਆਪੇ ਬੁਧਿ ਸਾਰੁ ॥

Wednesday: He Himself bestows sublime understanding.


ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਕਰਣੀ ਸਬਦੁ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥

The Gurmukh does good deeds, and contemplates the Word of the Shabad.

ਬਿਲਾਵਲ ਮਹਲਾ ੩ ਵਾਰ ਸਤ, ੮੪


Mercury is regarded as quite powerful in alchemy and traditional forms of medicine. It has an ability to amalgamate with gold in a manner which resembles dissolving and it is this powerful property which allows impure gold to be purified, an extremely ancient process and method of doing so.

The lump of raw cinnabar during the initial stage being crushed down in a metal mortar and pestle.

Cinnabar creates a red colour which intensified each time the raw mineral is ground. To achieve such an intense colour, it was traditional for the pigment to be ground repeatedly for 3 to 4 months. Experiencing the preparation of cinnabar first hand during the course, extra care had to be adopted as cinnabar contains mercury, silvery-white poisonous metallic element.


The cinnabar during the lengthy process of purification through grinding and washing

During the 19th C, fur treated with mercury was used to manufacture felt hats. Those manufacturing the hats would sit in confined spaces with no fresh air and by inhaling the toxic fumes they would become irrational in their behaviour. Hence the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’. When grinding the cinnabar rocks, a mask was worn at all times. Any ground up powder is put into water, left to settle, drained off and ground up repeatedly to eventually produce a vivid red colour. The lengthy and meditative nature of this procedure requires patience and one can only marvel at the work of traditional practitioners.


The finely ground powdered cinnabar pigment

In addition to cinnabar, there are numerous other red pigments which are obtained from other various mineral sources. A more common source of the red used in some Gurmukhi manuscripts could have possibly have been red lead. Research has shown that red lead is found extensively in 19th Century Gurbani manuscripts. When exposed to atmospheric pollution it becomes brown and can even develop a silver coloured layer. In the image below you can see how the red used in the correction ink has turned silver in some areas (circled in yellow) as it is lead based, whereas the red ink used for the numbering (circled in purple) is still a vivid red. It is possible that the numbering was written using the cinnabar pigment. The blue circled corrections are possibly an indication of what the correction ink looked like before it turned silver. However, there is the possibility that it may also be written a different blend of inks. The material composition of Gurmukhi manuscripts is definitely a topic worthy of requiring further investigative and extensive research.




In the next post of this series, we will explore the traditions and methods for the yellow and green pigments found in Gurmukhi manuscripts.

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