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How to Go herbal this Holi…

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Dr Renu Soni, Dr Garima Malik and Dr Usha Prasad tell you how to explore the vast Indian flora to make natural colours

Holi, the annual festival of colour and joy, is one of the most popular and vibrant festivals of North India celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Phalguna in the Hindu calendar. According to conventional wisdom, Holi festival marks the end of winter and the arrival of a New Year in the form of spring. It is celebrated joyously for two days; first day in the form of Holika Dahan (Chhoti Holi) and the second day as Dhulandi (Rangwali Holi). The festival is celebrated differently in various parts of North India with lots of colour (gulal/rang), water balloons and water guns (picchkari). Lathmar Holi celebrated in the Braj region of Mathura, the birth place of Lord Krishna, is famous world-wide where the women chase and playfully hit the men with sticks.

According to Hindu religion, Holi, like many of its festivals, celebrates triumph of good over evil. There are several mythological stories associated with the origin of this festival. One of the most famous stories is how an evil King Hrinyakashyapu wanted to kill his son Prahlad, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, with the assistance of her sister Holika who had a boon which made her immune against fire. However, Holika was burnt to ashes while trying to kill Prahlad, who remained unaffected. This is how, the tradition to light a bonfire, called Holika on the eve of Holi symbolising the eventual perishing of evil forces, was born.


In Indian cultural heritage, use of natural colours during this festival season has been the norm and practice. Basically colours can be obtained from natural or artificial sources. Natural colours are obtained from different parts of plants (like roots, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark etc.), and the artificial colours or synthetic colours are manufactured chemically.

Natural colours are eco-friendly and safe for the skin. Synthetic colours on the other hand are generally harmful to humans and other living beings as they contain toxic chemicals like mercury, lead, etc., which can lead to a number of health problems. They may cause skin and eye allergy, temporary blindness, bronchial asthma and other respiratory diseases. They also have a negative impact on the environment. Natural colours are eco-friendly as they are biodegradable.

The rich flora of our country provides us with a huge array of natural options for making colours. We can all explore this fascinating world by using different parts of the commonly grown plants and in turn make this wonderful festival of colours more enjoyable, harmless and environment-friendly.

There are several Indian plants that can be used to make either dry colours or wet colours. For dry colours, leaves or flowers are air dried and then crushed and sieved to produce a fine powder. Whereas wet colours can be obtained by making the paste of leaves or flowers in the grinder. The paste can then be diluted with water to yield the required colour. To increase the bulk of dry colours different flours like Gram flour (besan), Wheat flour (atta or Maida) and Rice flour can be mixed with the dry powder. The proportion of flour and colour can be adjusted depending upon the intensity of the colour required.

How to make natural colours

Butea monosperma ( Flame of the Forest/Dhak/Palasha/Tesu)w_lead box 1

Tesu is a sacred tree, known as a Treasurer of the Gods and of Sacrifice. According to legend, Lord Krishna used to play Holi with tesu flowers. The bright orange-vermillion flowers can be dried and crushed for an orange powder or soaked in water overnight to obtain fragrant yellowish-orange coloured water.

Nyctanthes arbor tristis (Harashringar/Parijatak/Night Jasmine)w_lead box 2

This is a woody shrub having highly fragrant five-eight lobed white flowers with an orange-red centre, produced in clusters of two to seven, which bloom at night and fall off before sunrise. When soaked in water, the bright orange corolla tubes of the flowers impart an orange-yellow colour.

Tagetes erecta ( Marigold/Gainda)w_lead box 3

Marigold is said to have derived its name from “Mary’s Gold” due to the fact that early Christians placed flowers instead of coins on Mary’s altar as an offering. The vibrant yellow-gold-orange coloured flower is mainly used in weddings and holy places in India. A yellow-orange coloured dye can obtained from the flower. It can also be used as a saffron substitute for colouring and flavoring foods.

Curcuma lon (Turmeric, Haldi)w_lead box 4

The dried rhizomes or underground stems of Turmeric are a source of a bright yellow spice and dye. Turmeric powder can be used alone or mixed with besan. The powder can also be dissolved in water to produce a yellow coloured liquid.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (Commonly known as china rose)w_lead box 5

The flowers are used as an offering to the Goddess Kali and Lord Ganesha. The glorious huge flowers occur in many colours, the most common one being red. The flowers can be dried and powdered to make a lovely red colour or boiled in water to derive red colour. The petals of blue Hibiscus flowers (found in Kerala) are used to extract bright blue colour.

Lawsonia inermis (Henna/Mehendi)w_lead box 6

Dried leaves of Henna are crushed to obtain a natural, safe green Holi colour. Dry leaf powder (mehendi) does not leave any colour on the skin as it can be easily brushed off. If used in paste form, it will leave a colour, which will gradually fade with time.

Delonix regia (Gulmohur)w_lead box 7

It is an ornamental flowering tree with wide spreading umbrella like canopy. Both the leaves and the flowers can be used to make herbal colours. The leaves and flowers can be air dried and powdered to yield green and red colour respectively.

 Bombax ceiba (Kapok, Silk cotton, Semal)w_lead box 8

Semal is called the king of the forest due to its massive size and showy flowers. The showy, bright red flowers, which appear in the months of January to March, are large and conspicuous on the leafless trees. Its showy flowers are used to make eco-friendly red colour by boiling the flower petals in water.

Beta vulgaris (Beet root, sugar beet, Chakundar)w_lead box 9

The roots of cultivated species are deep red and swollen. Boiling beetroot in water gives a beautiful dark magenta colour which can be used after cooling. Even the juice can be extracted with water in the blender. Mixing the juice with milk will yield a lighter pink colour.

Jacaranda mimosifolia (Neeli gulmohur/ Neelkanth)w_lead box 10

It is widely planted for its beautiful blue-Lavender coloured, long tubular flowers, which appear during summer months and are long lasting. Flowers when air dried and crushed produce a beautiful blue coloured powder.

Phyllanthusemblica (Amla, Anola, Indian Gooseberry)w_lead box 11

The fruit is green at first, changing to light yellow as it ripens. The fruit, bark and leaves are used in tanning and dyeing. Fruits are a source of black colour.  The colour can be obtained by making the paste of boiled fruits and storing it in iron vessel overnight.