Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Tales of a colour fiend !
Can be a bit of a headache this one..... Natural Red colour.... whether using  Dyer’s Madder (rubia tinctoria)

 Al / Mengkudu / Tiba / Kombu (morinda citrifolia),

 or the several varieties of Indian madder all coming under the general name of Manjeeth, Manjeestha  (rubia cordifolia / rubia sikkimensis), to name but a few.

Once you’ve sniffed out rumours of where the precious colour is still being made, you have to get there and that’s only the beginning of the fun...planning to travel to somewhere new, the thrill of what adventures the journey will offer-up , is there anybody in the rumoured place still actually dyeing ?   Will they let you in on their secrets and share a precious recepie ? Will they actually talk to you at all, & if they do - more to the point - will you understand them or be able to communicate at all ? Is it the right season to be able to find the dyestuffs used ? Do the people that do the dyeing have the materials to hand when you are there to demonstrate ?

Do they have enough of the ingredients so that you can buy some to take with you ? Can you take photos ?  
On & on it goes....a quest for something that will hopefully give a certain extra something 
With all this in mind when I was in India recently I heard that the laws restricting foreigners from visiting Naga Land - a state in the North East of India - had been lifted . As things go, I luckily met in Kolkata a wonderful woman from Naga Land called Bano who kindly offered to help me out by putting me in contact and organising hook-ups with people who might know about natural red dyeing still being done there.
I had 3 days to go there... a speedy reccy, as I had to be back in Bhuj. I was VERY excited..  NAGA LAND...I had wanted to go there for years with the tales of head-hunters, indigenous culture, great jewellery, wood carving & traditional blankets.

traditional Naga blanket

A new friend of mine and prolific professional writer, Madame J, agreed to come along with me for the ride & so we found ourselves meeting up in the waiting-room at Guwahati Train Station in Assam at 11.30pm at night.

We poured ourselves into the jam-packed train to find  our berths in the second-class sleeper-carriage. We then peeled ourselves from the train the next morning & after an auto-rickshaw and a rather bumpy 5 hour maruti taxi ride softened by several shots of whisky, we arrived in Mon in Naga Land in the afternoon.

There are no guesthouses in is a relatively new town created after independence to serve as the administration capital for the area, but thanks to Bano we were able to stay in the local magistrates house.
We got a car , aided by the Headmaster of the local school and off we went with an ex student of his as a guide to one of the local Naga Villages where I heard there was a red-dyeing technique. We arrived just before dark, in time to be shown the plant that is used for dyeing red. 
Unfortunately they are no longer dyeing in the village, so after meeting the Chief of the village & his merry brother, declining to see the human skulls or buy trinkets, we beat a hasty retreat as it was now dark.

naga manjeet

On the way back to Mon in the car , we started to accelerate wildly, and Madame J and I looked ahead to see that we were chasing a red-haired animal.....oh cool I thought..they are trying to catch up with it so we can take a photo. WRONG !!!! The ex-student turned to me and said “ Fox.. Fried, roasted , very very tasty ", and both he and the driver burst into peals of laughter. Luckily for the fox it managed to dart into the hedge and escape its fate as a road-kill dinner.  
After a less exotic dinner than fox...vegetables and rice for me, Chicken for Madam J, we found ourselves round the open  hearth in the kitchen for an after dinner chat with our hosts and their household.

Next day we went off to the village where our hosts were born, right on the border with Myanmar, this was a traditional village without many of the trappings of tourism. 
No natural dyed cloth in sight, but some fantastic body adornments and a monkey-skull bag.

The village houses were amazing, together with some of the hand-carved massive doors and drums. People were so friendly here.

We raced back to Mon to pack, say goodbye to our hosts & sign in with the local constabulary, who were I must say some of the  handsomest, most helpful, friendliest & cheery  agents of the law that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. 

Then it was onto the local bus for what turned out to be a 14 hour bone shaking journey back through Bhojo (time for a quick snifter or two) and on to Dimapur where Bano had most kindly arranged for us to stay in her family home. We arrived early in the morning, were served a delicious breakfast , then went off to Khonoma with a relative where I was told there was still some red dyeing going on.


Khonoma is extremely beautiful, in a valley ripe with flowers and vegetation.

Siesalie Khate

We were introduced to Bano’s cousin: Siesalie Khate from the Angami Naga  tribe who still makes the spears - riingu, shields - pejii,  breast-plates - terhiihu,  large earrings -sani, small earrings - tenhnie, necklaces & cane leg bangles - pisos,  used for ceremonial wear.  

spear - ringu

small earrings - tenhnie
   Dyeing plays an integral part in the making of ceremonial wear accessories. 
Goat hair - tenii mia is used to decorate the spear shafts & make the earrings                                                                                                                          

Three colours are used : yellow, black, & red. All from natural dyes.
The yellow is obtained from leaves known locally as maguii 

goat hair dyed with maguii leaves

The dark brown/ black is obtained from a mixture of berries known locally as tsomhu & either the bark or the skin of the fruit of the walnut tree : khfii   & paddy-field mud

The red is obtained from a special strain of Indian madder/ manjeet called Naga madder( rubia sikkimensis )known locally as tsinhii which Siesalie has to go up high into the hills to gather.

rubia sikkimensis

We were then treated to a most delicious lunch by Bano’s uncle  Khrieni Meru and his wife at their house in Khonoma. After which we raced back to Dimapur. 

Khrieni Meru

So no red for textiles, but  very happy to have found some Nagamese madder & be told the recepies for traditional dyeing techniques on goat-hair & to have met such great people. Thanks Bano.



  1. hey! this is so inspiring! i'm totally looking forward to following the leads and contacts you have given me! thank you!

  2. simon imdeed an adventurer you are!!!
    bravissimo caro..che coraggio.....portami un girono....!!!


  3. Dear M, thank thing...what's a "girono " ? xxx

  4. beeautiful blog and such exciting thrilling images! feel so ready for an adventure after perusing these pics. lotsa hugs Vivxxxx

  5. Hi Simon,
    VIWE,La Vorliece ! ( You are welcome.Come Again). Delighted to read your story and marvelling at how much you unravelled in so little time!!Just got back from Khonoma and have news for you.

    1. Thanks Bano. Nothing would have been possible without your generous help and hospitality.

  6. Simon, You are a very good storyteller - and it's the truth you are telling. You have a real way with words of adventure.

  7. wow .. finally got time to look at this ... wonderful stuff. I really enjoyed my week in nagaland but was not on a dye search . that was a cool way to play it but that seems to be your thing. wanna meet ya in bali this april.
    be well
    I am in mexico in oaxaca at the moment .

  8. What a fantastic adventure Simon! We on the other hand had three weeks in Goa! Still planning to visit you in Bali. Happy New Year and lots of love, Joss and Jayne xx

    1. Dear Jane & Joss, Lovely to hear from you both & thanks.
      How was Goa ? Looking forward to seeing you here, Happy New Year, lots of Love, Simon xxx

  9. WOW, what a trip!! Can't wait to hear more of the dying and weaving.
    I loved my dying and weaving course in Luang Prabang. The gentle ladies kept jumping in to weave my placemat for me 'cause I was so slow.

    Take care

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