The rich tones of Kanchipuram silk sarees reveal the most telling details about the town, whether it’s the sacred hymns sung in its temples or the piquant dishes cooked in its kitchens.
A pilgrimage centre; the celebrated capital of the Pallava dynasty (275 CE – 897 CE); home to descendants of the sage Markandeya – Kanchipuram’s many facets can be glimpsed not just in history books, but also on shelves displaying its resplendent silk sarees.
Why do Kanchipuram’s weavers prefer certain colours? Why is ‘kemp’ (red) considered auspicious? Why is the parrot referenced when describing a certain shade of green? To understand the colours that are dyed deep into Kanchipuram silk sarees, is to understand Kanchipuram itself.
Kempu (சிகப்பு), the colour of vitality
Perhaps because Kanchipuram is widely associated with bridal silk sarees, red and its shades are often the first colours that spring to mind.
The connection goes deeper still. The town is famous for the Kamakshi Amman temple, where the deity is associated with passion, fertility and prosperity. For centuries, weavers would create silk sarees primarily for temple idols and royalty. Kamakshi Devi is typically draped in a red silk saree, and weavers have become adept at capturing the many shades and tints of red. The word ‘kempu’ itself may have come from the rubies used to create temple jewellery.
The names of the colours are drawn from everyday life. The fiery red of chillies is named ‘milagai pazham’, while the deeper shade is named ‘kumkuma’ after sindoor. Red with a hint of orange is called ‘thakkali’ (tomato), while dusty pink is reminiscent of onions and aptly called ‘vengayam’. Red imbued with magenta is named after the sacred hibiscus flower (chembaruthi) that’s offered at Kanchipuram’s many shrines.
Red was also one of the first colours to be successfully used as a dye, and the natural elements that yielded them have found their way into the lexicon as well. ‘Arakku’ (lac) is one of the earliest-known sources of red dyes, and remains the favourite colour for muhurtham ceremonies in weddings across Tamil Nadu.
Pachai (பச்சை), the colour of fertility
India’s monsoons generously water Kanchipuram’s green paddy fields, and the colour of fertility is often represented on Kanchipuram silk sarees.
Unsurprisingly, the names of several shades are derived from vegetation. ‘Illai pachai’ translates to ‘leaf green’, while ‘elakkai pachai’ references the pastel shade of cardamom. ‘Paasi pachai’ is named after moss; we’re partial to the poetic ‘manthulir’, the twilight shade of tender mango leaves that lies between green and red. Transitional or dual-tone shades like ‘manthulir’ are achieved by using one colour for the warp and another for the weft.
Goddess Kamakshi carries a parrot in one of her hands, and the bird’s colour has grown so familiar that ‘kili pachai’ is a colour often favoured by weavers. Kanchipuram is also home to the Pachai Vanna Perumal temple, where Vishnu is represented in resplendent emerald green, another popular hue among green Kanchipuram silk sarees.
Neelam (நீலம்), the shade of infinity
The Vaikuntha Perumal temple has captured the imagination of artists since it was built by the Pallava king Nandivarman II in the 8th century CE, and its blue-hued deity Vishnu inspires many colours in the blue palette.
Perhaps the most recognisable is ‘ananda blue’ which represents the radiant blue associated with Lord Vishnu. In his avatar as Krishna, Vishnu is referred to as ‘Shyama’, the dark-skinned one. ‘Krishna meghavarnam’ is used to describe the greyish-purple tone of rain clouds, a colour that’s easily related to the much-loved deity.
The suprabhatam sung by MS Subbulakshmi announces daybreak in households across southern India, and it’s not surprising that the legendary singer has a colour named after her. ‘MS blue’ was created especially for her, and silk sarees in this colour became her signature.
The flora and fauna of Kanchipuram also feature prominently in the blue palette. ‘Mayil kazhuthu’ is inspired by the bluish-green necks of peacocks that frequent the countryside. The bluebell barleria grows abundantly in the last months of the year, and is locally called ‘December poo’. The rich purple hue that takes its name is simply stunning. You’ll just as easily identify the purple-magenta tone of the ‘vadamalai’ blossom, the eggplant colour of ‘kathiri’, and the darkest shade of purple inspired by the jamun fruit, which is called ‘naval pazham’.
Manjal (மஞ்சள்), the herald of Spring
From the ethereal to the everyday, shades of yellow and orange have punctuated life in Kanchipuram for centuries.
The distinct saffron ‘srichurnam’ is applied to the foreheads of Vishnu devotees, and readily adapted by Kanchipuram’s weavers into their silk sarees. Turmeric or ‘manjal’ is treasured for its healing properties and also applied by women every day to enhance their complexion; the colour inspired by this root is called ‘pasu manjal’.
The heady fragrance of sandalwood paste marks all of Kanchipuram’s temples, and its colour is called ‘sandhanam’. Light orange that borders on peach is called ‘kanakambaram’, after the flower that is offered to deities. Kitchen ingredients also find a place in the yellow palette; the golden amber hue of honey is named ‘teyn’, while the earthy yellow of fenugreek seeds is referred to as ‘vendhayam’.
That most beloved of Indian fruits, the mango, features prominently among the motifs and tones of Kanchipuram silk sarees. If it’s a saree in this colour that you seek, ask for ‘mambazham’. Of course, not all of Kanchipuram’s shades are ancient. The craft is quick to adapt to modern influences as well, as the name ‘Fanta orange’ clearly shows.
Like any art form, each colour of a handwoven Kanchipuram silk saree is carefully considered and chosen to convey meaning. Their stories are as numerous as the colours themselves. So, which among these is your favourite?