Saturday, June 10, 2000


The wonder that was indigo

By Pramod Sangar

THERE is ample evidence to show that the indigo industry was one of the premier industries of the country during the 17th century. With the advent of the English and the Dutch into the country, the demand and importance of the indigo enhanced many times and it became an important item of international trade. Despite various hazards like natural calamities, the monopolistic attitude of the Emperor, the role of the middle men and the rivalry between the Europeans, it remained a popular export item due to its many uses. Finch, on August 30, 1609, mentioned three varieties of indigo produced during that time. The first and the foremost variety was from Biana (near Agra) and sold at 40 to 60 Mahmudis (a popular coin current in Gujarat, equivalent to 2/3 of a rupee) per maund. Sarkhej (near Ahmedabad) was sold at the rate of 25 to 30 Mahmudis per maund and that from Jambusar (between Cambay and Surat) was sold at 15 to 20 Mahmudis per maund.


Marco Polo, a veteran traveller, who visited India during the latter part of the 13th century, noted "that at colium they make an abundant quantity of very fine indigo. This is made of a certain herb which is gathered and (after the roots have been removed) is put into great vessels upon which they pour water and then leave it till the whole of the plant is decomposed". The chief provinces engaged in its cultivation were Lahore, Agra, Multan, Allahabad, Gujarat and Delhi. There is sufficient evidence to show that when European traders first began to purchase and export the dye, it was produced in the western India and mostly shipped from Surat. It was carried to Lisbon by the Portuguese and further sold to dyers in Holland. But, with the formation of the Dutch and the English East India companies, there began a rivalry for the monopoly of its trade.

Indigo was used both for internal and external consumption. It was used to dye various kinds of cloth. But it was also used to dye the skin and hair. The indigo refuse (beet) was often used as manure by cultivators. The indigo yielding plant (especially the leaf) is rich in nitrogen and also contains a comparatively large amount of mineral water, while its ash contains a rather high percentage of magnesia.

The Mughal emperors maintained their own karkhanas or factories for cotton and silks. The popularity of indigo due to the heavy purchases made by the English and the Dutch after their arrival in India, probably led the Emperor, Shahjahan, to declare it as a monopoly item. Tavernier remarked, "Indigo comes from different localities of the empire of the great Mughal, and in these different localities is of various qualities, which increase or diminish its price." Though there were numerous varieties of indigo but the Dutch and the English recognised just two varieties — Biana and Sarkhej.

The best and the richest indigo was known as Agra indigo, which was produced in the towns known as Biana, Panchoona, Bisur and Khanwa — all near Agra. It was the main export centre, where the English and the Dutch had established their factories. William Finch has again described the three varieties of indigo prepared in Biana. The first year’s crop was known as note (naudha, young plant), the second year’s crop was jari, sprouting from the roots and was considered the best. The third year’s crop was khunti and was the worst of the three. About preparing the best indigo, Finch remarked, "four things are required-- pure grain, a violent color, its gloss in the sunne, and it that it be dry and light so that swimming in the water or burning in the fire, it cast forth a pure light violet vapor leaving a few ashes."

Joseph Salbank, an English factor of eminence, has noted that Biana was two days journey from Agra. It was the chief centre of indigo trade. The best and the richest quality was found in Biana. The indigo grew on small bushes and its seed was like that of cabbage. After it was cut down, it remained in heaps for half a year and then it was beaten up. Tavernier, while delineating about the indigo-making in Ahmadabad, gave a word of caution to those who were engaged in indigo industry. The indigo makers had to be very careful while sifting indigo as they would keep before this faces a cloth so that their "nostrils be well stopped". Moreover, the sifters had to drink milk every hour as a preservative against the dust in indigo. Tavernier further remarked, "I have indeed on more than one occasion observed that if an egg is placed in the morning near one of these sifters, in the evening, when one of breaks the egg, it is altogether blue inside, so penetrating is the dust of indigo".

The Biana indigo inspite of its high price and the distance it had to be brought was much preferred to that of Sarkhej and in 1624, the company ordered that "no less than two-third of the indigo shipped should be of former type."

The ideal season for buying indigo was October-November. Another interesting aspect of the trade was that the English factors had started buying indigo prior to the ‘indigo season’ out of the fear that Moor and Armenian merchants might buy it for sending it to the Middle East. Moreover, the English had to hurry their purchase for the reason that the brokers were not be able to keep it with them for a long time.

Another important variety was available from Sarkhej. It was situated 5 miles from Ahmadabad. The town, though not populous, was considered ideal for the production of indigo due to the "fatness of soil". Here indigo was prepared by water while in other parts by fire. It was the cheapest and the best to be found in India. "The article produced at Sarkhej was made in the form of cakes and was flat as distinguished from the variety produced in Biana which was purer and was round from the fact that it was made in balls."

A Dutch factor, Phillip Baldaues, has given a detailed account of the making of Sarkhej indigo. He says that the indigo shrub had small twigs, like those of black berry. It grew for three years after its first sowing. The first year, the leaves were plucked when the plant reached a foot’s height. The leaves thus plucked were dried in the sun for 24 hours and later put into barrels full of salt water. The water was continuously and vigorously stirred for four or five days till it thickened and the indigo settled at the bottom. The sediment was then separated from the water and was spread on the ground to dry. Indigo was regarded good if it was light and gave a feeling of dryness when pressed between fingers. It floated on water, and when thrown upon coals, it gave violet-coloured smoke. It left little ash behind.

In 1618, the Governor of Ahmadabad demanded a bribe of Rs 1 lakh to allow free trade in the commodity. It 1633, Shahjahan made it a royal monopoly just as the Shah of Persia had done with the silk trade. During this period, a royal edict confirmed the sale of indigo throughout the Mughal territory for three years to a Hindu merchant Manohar Das. He was to be assisted by a loan from the government which would share the profit that might accrue. The strong Dutch and English protests proved to be of no avail as Manohar Das had the backing of an influential noble, Mirjumla. The Dutch and the English entered into a solemn agreement on Nov 19, 1633, to break this monopoly and decided that no party would purchase indigo for one year save at its own price and the purchase of indigo was to be a joint venture. The Dutch and the English solemnly pledged not to accept indigo as freight. This combination compelled Shahjahan to dissolve the partnership with Manohar Das and Mirjumla on April 14, 1635.

Purchase of indigo could be made either in cash or through barter. Sometimes, cash was sent directly from England on ships or funds were obtained by exchange of rails into rupees. Funds were also obtained for indigo investments by remittance of bills of exchange from the central factory at Surat to sub-ordinate factories like Agra or Ahmedabad. Sometimes the cash remittance of the East India Company proved inadequate and they had to utilize the proceeds of some imported articles like quick silver and broad cloth. The absorption of the entire funds of the company at Agra for Anglo-Dutch purchase of indigo, compelled the Surat authorities to stop the investment at Ahmadabad and other places in the absence of remittance.

Besides the cash payment for the purchase of indigo, barter was also resorted to. In 1618, the Agra factors sent 951 fardles of indigo to Surat after procuring the same by bartering cloth which they had an stock. Another characteristics of indigo trade was a keen sense of competition between the Dutch and the English for its monopoly. In 1637, the Dutch were found paying more for indigo at Ahmedabad in order to frustrate the attempts of the English. Another letter written by the English factors on May 29, 1619, to the company ran as follows "the high price of indigo is entirely due to the competition between the English and the Dutch and to their allowing the ships to be used by and native merchants for its transportation, for although it was not very useful to send Biana over land to Persia via Lahore, no one would dream of following the same route.