The South Asian History of Red

The color’s popularity has waxed and waned in the West. But, in the subcontinent, the hue has always been in.

Ravi Varma-Princess Damayanthi talking with Royal Swan about Nala
Princess Damayanthi talking with Royal Swan about Nala (Raja Ravi Varma)

Ayesha Le Breton


December 19, 2023


6 min

If you consider black to be the absence of color and white to be all the colors, then red is the first distinct color humans perceive. It is the third color that civilizations usually name (after black and white, of course). From its first use likely over 40,000 years ago — Stone Age hunters and gatherers used red clay for body paint and to bury their dead — red remains ubiquitous today. 

In 2023, fashionistas declared red to be the fall color. With the holiday season upon us, red appears amply in Santa hats and wrapping paper. But, in South Asia, red has always been in — from vermillion to bridal outfits, from Preity Zinta’s dress in Kal Ho Naa Ho to the rage of Bulbbul, from Durga’s sari to Kali’s tongue, from Rajput attire to vocalization marks in Qurans. The word derives from the Sanskrit word rudhira, yet the history of the color often elides its South Asian roots.

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