ONE OF THE UGLIEST SIGHTS that assaults the senses on a daily basis in urban India is the mass insanity called artificial hair colouring. Greying, middle-aged men and women dyeing their hair black (or Mehendi brown-red) is understandable. But that phenomenon became passé long ago. What we now have is an insecurity-engendered epidemic that cuts across age groups and multicoloured genders: of discolouring one’s hair with shades that don’t even have a proper name.
In malls and cinema halls and in restaurants and on roads, it is common to see a repulsive explosion of yellows, pinks, purples, oranges, greens, and the entire VIBGYOR atop people’s heads battering your eyes. The assault isn’t limited to your eyes alone. It impacts your entire sensory and emotional experience because it overturns the fundamental notion of aesthetics.
The subliminal message that these hideous hair colours transmits is this: ugliness is beauty.
Needless, this vile phenomenon is both the creation of and driven by the ubiquitous, greedy corporate forces. The global market for the hair colour industry in 2022 is about $21 billion and is growing at 8.5% CAGR; the Indian market is valued at around $500 million and growing roughly at about the same rate.
Dire warnings from doctors about the health hazards of using chemically-manufactured hair dyes and hair colours are naturally drowned amidst the barrage of compelling advertisements from these hawkers of cancer and other deadly diseases.
Dyeing hair is almost as old as human civilisation because it is wired to a fundamental human impulse that refuses to accept ageing. Ancient India too, had evolved an astonishing range of recipes and procedures for preparing hair dyes. Like in the present time, the hair-dye industry was a thriving business in India for centuries.
ONE OF THE EARLIEST RECORDS that give detailed recipes for preparing hair-dyes is a delightful Sanskrit work titled Navanitakam. Dating back to the 2nd Century CE, the work is primarily an Ayurvedic treatise that also deals with a number of allied subjects. A separate essay will be published on it at a later date on The Dharma Dispatch.
Verses 1 thru 27 in the tenth chapter of the Navanitakam deals with the recipes for preparing hair-dyes. What strikes us immediately is the intimate and detailed knowledge of a stunning range of plants, herbs and metals used for making hair-dyes. Even more stunning is the manner in which it provides precise information for making a variety of concoctions and mixtures to produce specific results. A further nuance is also interesting to note: not all ingredients were used directly as hair dyes; some were used merely as dye-producing agents. However, the end goal was the same: to produce a deep black or blue-black hair-dye.
As we noted in our essay about the art and science of making perfumes in ancient India, the Navanitakam too, invokes various Devatas and proclaims that using hair-dye signals Mangalam or auspiciousness, and that it aids the attainment of the Purusharthas.
The original Sanskrit term for hair-dye is Kesha-Raga (literally, hair-colour). This is also the title of the tenth chapter Navanitakam. Unfortunately, the full text of the work is not available and in many places, words and entire sentences and even whole chapters of the original manuscript are unavailable.
Without further ado, these were the recipes for preparing hair-dyes in ancient India.
1. Boil <text missing> and oleander in sesame-oil. This mixture applied as nasal drops or an ointment is an approved remedy for turning grey hair into black.
2. A paste made of Prapaundarika [a variety of ginger] <text missing> and applied as a plaster, is a remedy for turning grey hair into black.
3. Bamboo-manna, garden-nightshade Shatapushpa (Peucedanum graveolens), and sesame-seeds when applied to the hair, causes it to become as black as antimony. Antimony is used in the preparation of Kohl.
4. Indigo, rock-salt, and long pepper, mixed with water and ground into a paste when applied to the hair, cause it turn black.
5. First, wash the head with chebulic and emblic myrobalans. Then prepare a paste of Alambusha (Sphaerantus indicus) and indigo, and with it, while warm, anoint the head and leave it on for some time. The hair will not turn grey.
6. Gather the following: Copper Sulphate, Musta (cyperus rotundus), iron sulphate, bile of a turtle, powdered iron, Danti (Baliospermum montanum), Sahadeva (Sida rhomboidea), and Bhringaraja. Take one part of each, boiled with the oil of beleric myrobalan. This is a remedy for turning grey hair into black, and if it is applied regularly as an ointment, it will prevent the hair from turning grey.
7. One prastha (about 10 Kg) of the juice of Bhingaraja, the same quantity of milk, and one pala (about 11 gms) of liquorice, boiled in one Kudava (about 186 gms) of oil, will make even a crane to turn black. Within a week, it will remove wrinkles and grey hair for twelve years. Within a month, it will do the same for one hundred years, if administered as nasal drops.
8. Take two pala of the roots of Ramataruni (Rosa alba), one pala of liquorice, half a pala of savaraka (Symplocos racemosa), and ten pala of oil of beleric myrobalan. Boil it by the heat of the sun in an iron vessel for ten days, and administer it as nasal drops. This will make grey hairs to become of the same colour as the large black-bee.
9. One prastha of the juice of emblic myrobalan, the same quantity of ghee, and one pala of liquorice: all this together, should be boiled over a gentle fire. Its application as an ointment will give sight to the blind, and black colour to grey hair. If it is perseveringly administered as nasal drops, it will even restore a person’s lost sight.
10. Take equal parts of no more than one emblic myrobalan, of each of the three myrobalans, indigo, and blue lotus. Take also of the fruit of Pindaraka (Vangueria spinosa), antimony sulphide, roots of long pepper and leaves of sahacara (Barleria cristata) and add a decoction of Jaman and earth from the roots of the Jaman tree.
11. Fruit of Kakubha (Terminalia arjuna), and two kudava of sesame-oil, and boil the whole in the oil of beleric myrobalans slowly over a gentle fire. Administer it now as nasal drops for fifteen days. On the sixteenth day, the noble patient will have left no white hair, his scalp will be black, his face and eyes will look shiny, and all his hair will be of a deep dark colour, says Agastya, the best of teachers.
12. Take the three myrobalans, flowers of sahacara (Barleria cristata) Jamun, Kars'marya (Gmelina arborea), flowers of kakubha (Terminalia arjuna), kernel of the mango, and fruit of Pindaraka (Vangueria spiñosa), iron sulphate, flowers of Asana (Terminalia tomentosa), indigo, blue lotus, knots of the root-stalk of the lotus, antimony sulphide, black mould, powdered iron, two kaptakärika, two S'ariva, Madayanti (Jasminum Sambac), Juice of Bhingaraja (Eclipta alba) and oil of beleric myrobalan. Mix all this with a decoction of Asana (Terminalia tomentosa) and let it stand unboiled for ten days in an iron vessel. After this, boil it thoroughly over a gentle fire, and add to it one half as much of shukta (fermented rice water). This shukta should have already been kept in Mudga (Phaseolas Mungo) and Masha (Phaseolus Roxburghii). Then, on the completion of the half month, having kept it well-protected in the mean time, administer this preparation. Having prepared one's body with the three myrobalans, and dieting on Kichdi, one should use this oil as nasal drops in doses of one shukti (conch shell) at a time, with care and in a sheltered spot. If a person who has a head full of white hair takes one prastha of this oil as nasal drops, he will possess black hair.
THE KESHA-RAGA SECTION of Navanitakam ends with this. Clearly, there is abundant information on a range of topics, chief of which is organic chemistry and botany. The minuteness with which our ancients had studied plant life so early in our history and the sort of intense experimentation that they had undertaken is nothing short of awesome. And this kind of in-depth study and practical application in an area which is non-essential to life — making hair-dyes — is the icing on the cake.
We’re reminded of Sri Dharampal’s lament about the shocking paucity of research in Indian science and technology conducted by Indians in India.
The present topic should ideally be pursued in greater depth and detail by experts in Ayurveda, chemistry and allied disciplines.
The Kesha-Raga section lists a whopping 47 ingredients used in preparing various kinds of hair-dyes as described so far. So far, only 45 ingredients have been identified. The full list is given below.
Bezoar, Gall-Stone, Serpent- Stone
Inknut, Chebulic myrobalan
Alambusha - A sort of sensitive plant
Calamine, Carbonate of Zinc, Sulphate of Zinc
Green Vitriol, Iron Sulphate,
Bile of a tortoise
Sida rhomboidea (or arrow leaf side)
Sprout of the Ashoka tree
Lodh tree (even today, it is an essential ingredient in making face packs and powders used in wrinkle treatments)
Sulphide of Lead
Leaf of Nilapushpa
Black Plum or Jamun
Fruit of Arjuna-Vruksham
Oil of Bibhitaki (beleric myrobalan)
Flower of Sahachara (Kurinji in Tamil; Karvi/kara in Hindi)
Gambhari — beechwood, white teak, etc.
Flower of Kakubha or wild lettuce, China lettuce, etc.
The seed of mango fruit
Knot on the lotus Stalk
Mud of the colour of Anjana (lead sulphide)
Madayanti - Mehendi/Henna
Flower of Kino tree
Extract or decoction of Kino tree
Black iron vessel
1. PK. Gode. Recipes for Hair-dyes in the Navanitaka (2nd Century A.D.), Studies in Indian Cultural History.
2. A. F. Rudolf Hoernle. The Bower Manuscript, 1897.
3. B.S. Mohan. Navanitakam, 1925.
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