Adventures in Ethnobotany, aka Bungle in the Jungle

Yesterday morning I sat down with Ranbir and showed him a list I had of potential dye plants. He thought he might recognize a couple of the local names, and consulted with a neighbor sitting on the roof next door, but we didn’t get very far. We thought it might help to look up pictures and see if he recognized the plants by sight, since the lists I had were from different areas of the Himalayas and he might know things under different names. This was much more successful, and we came up with about a dozen matches. The neighbor kid was over, and every so often would run off to grab a sample of a plant he recognized out in the yard. I was the most excited about locating a local indigo, Indigofera dosua, known here as “kathi.” So in the afternoon, we took the goats and headed up to the jungle (which is actually a pine forest above the town). Ranbir was sure we would be able to collect leaves, but his sister said the leaves wouldn’t come until next month. In the jungle, we stopped to ask villagers gathering firewood if they had seen any kathi growing. They pointed us to some trees, which hadn’t yet leafed out. I was skeptical–I was pretty sure we were looking for a small shrub, not a tree. But everyone kept insisting yes, this is kathi. When we got back home I looked it up again, and found that there is another indigo (I. heterantha) which grows 2-3 meters tall. In the evening, a “brother” (actually cousin) stopped by, and we told him about our kathi quest. He happens to work in forest conservation, and was able to tell us some plants which produce dyes. He said that the leaves of the kathi will produce greens, and the flowers will produce purples. So…maybe promising? But we’ll have to wait a month or 2 to try.

The Colours of Nature

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Happy fiber artist is happy.

Today we made it to The Colours of Nature, a natural dye company here in Auroville. Yesterday we rode our janky single-speed cruisers about 5 km over sandy, rocky, rutty roads in search of the place—we were pretty close, but didn’t ever find it. Today we were determined, and also had slightly better directions. It was a glorious sight when we found the sign out front!

TCoN uses pomegranate, jackfruit, cutch, madder, lac, and indigo to dye organic cotton for various clothing designers. Their main focus is indigo, which they do with natural fermentation vats. Anybody who’s lived with me knows I have a special fondness for projects involving mystery buckets of stink, so I was in heaven.

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The dye room floor was covered with little wicker bumps, which are the lids to the dye vats. The vats have been going for 19 years—they add water and indigo to them, but never empty them out. I commented that it didn’t really smell too bad, but Robyn gave me a look. Later she said, “it STANK in there, Jen!”  It really didn’t bother me, though.

One of the master dyers came and dyed some cloth for us. He sat right down next to the vat, stuck his gloved hand in and swished around the foamy mess at the top. He put in the cloth, worked it for a few minutes, then pulled it out and immediately snapped it open and started flapping it around in the air. In a matter of seconds, it changed from green to blue–which I knew would happen, but man, is it magic.

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This was after one dip–depending on the depth of shade desired, a piece may be dipped up to 16 times. Which is a lot of work. Just maintaining the vats is a lot of work, too–he has to come in and tend to them every day–“it’s like having a baby.”

We were hoping to get some information about growing indigo, but this company purchases indigo from a farmer, so they couldn’t help us there. It was still pretty awesome, and now I have lots of fabric to lug around for the next few days.