The Meanings Behind Saree Colors

Elegant sarees with different colors

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South Asia is a region of symbolic colors, which occupy a significant place in its people’s psyche. This is evident in the relevance of colors in their women’s sarees. The various shades and hues influence not just daily living but provide a framework for interpreting the future.

Each saree color has a meaning based on caste, culture, religion, and belief. Red denotes courage. White means purity—priests and their acolytes wear it. Green symbolizes life and happiness. Yellow signifies wisdom and peace. Blue represents  masculinity, courage, stability, and determination.

Read on to discover the significance of the rest of the saree colors. Find out how these feature in the lives of people around the world with a South Asian heritage.

A Kaleidoscope of Color

In a region as culturally diverse as South Asia, expressions of color bind the various perspectives, traditions, and lifestyles of each sector of society. Color symbolism influences every aspect of life, whether in jubilation, mourning, learning, working, socialization, or worship. It permeates politics, culture, religion, socioeconomic status, geographical disparity, local discourse, and international relations.

The various territories offer a kaleidoscope of color that provides insight into their residents’ daily existence. The colors of their women’s sarees denote a quintessential blend of historical, religious, and cultural values.

A Tribute to Cultural Diversity

Due to the diversity of its population, South Asia has a multitude of representations and interpretations of color. These denote the sentiments of the region’s residents. Each saree color symbolizes divergent qualities, themes, and virtues.

While one color may occupy a significant spot in a specific location, it doesn’t enjoy the same status in another. Some nationally acclaimed colors originate from the spices indigenous to their  regions.

Colors and Socioeconomic Levels

Colors designate social, political, and economic status. Since the Vedic period (approximately between 1500 and 700 BC), the saree’s colors, patterns, and designs have represented the wearer’s merits, beliefs, geographic origin, and caste.

The Sanskrit term for caste is “varna,” meaning color. Each caste has its own traditional color, which denotes its level of importance. Indians still adhere to this caste-color association. 

The varnas (castes) are:

  • Brahmins: Priests (white)
  • Kshatriyas: Warriors and royalty (red)
  • Vaisyas: Traders, merchants, and scribes (green)
  • Sudras: Farmers, artisans, and manual laborers, which include tanners, weavers, and dyers of indigo (blue)
  • Dalits: People belonging to the lowest caste in India, aka the “untouchables.” Dalits were initially not included in the four-fold Hindu varna system but were later added as the fifth varna, aka “Panchama.”

Tribal people, aka the “Adivasis,” foreigners, and Muslims were excluded from the caste system but were considered a league above the untouchables. (The Adivasis or Vanvasis were aborigines living in India before the Aryans arrived in the second millennium BC.)

Colors and Religion

In a continent imbued with religious beliefs, colors have deep significance. Religious undertones coexist with life stages in the South Asian psyche, and a color represents each level. For instance, Hindu clergy cover themselves with white ashes to commemorate their spiritual rebirth.

Most colors trace their origins in deities’ mythical lives and powers. The attire of Lords Krishna, Vishnu, and Ganesha is yellow, symbolic of their wisdom. Lord Shani, the god of justice, divine retribution, and karma, is often depicted with black skin. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, is portrayed atop a white lotus, donning a white dress.

That’s why many South Asians believe that colors have the power to affect their physical, psychological, and mental states—rendering color definitions more profound. Hindu artists color their deities’ attire to glorify their qualities. They color their environment to spread cheer.

In Hinduism, color transcends purely decorative sentiment. For Hindus, the most sacred color is saffron because it burns impurities. For Muslims, it is green because it is associated with the Prophet Muhammad.

Colors in Numerology and Astrology

In South Asia and many parts of the globe, people let astrology and numerology rule their lives. Each morning, one picks her saree color according to the astrological calculations for that day. For instance, red on Tuesdays, green on Wednesdays, yellow on Thursdays, and black on Saturdays. Since estimates change, colors are not permanently attached to specific days.

Color Perception in the West Versus East

The disparity in color perception between people in the western and eastern hemispheres is mired in history, culture, and religion. For instance, Christians and westerners acknowledge purple as the color of royalty. For Indians, it is red, and ochre denotes their nobility’s grandeur and wealth.

Color and Moods

The colors in our environment affect us, but most of us are not aware of this. The symbolic meanings of colors vary with each nation and its culture. In South Asia, colors influence people’s thoughts and decisions, such as deciding what to wear for the day, including sarees. Women choose saree colors based on their moods.

The Symbolism of Saree Colors

South Asia is a region steeped in tradition, culture, and a wealth of history. Their artisans, laborers, saints, warriors, revolutionaries, nobility, politicians, socialites, and even ordinary folk who have journeyed through its illustrious past have all played significant roles in establishing how we perceive colors today, including those gracing sarees.

Here are the different meanings of saree colors from various sources:

Red

Red is a celebratory color. It commemorates a couple’s union. It symbolizes love, sensuality, and passion. That’s why it features prominently in auspicious occasions, such as weddings, festivals, and births. As red also signifies chastity, it is the color of choice for brides. After the wedding ceremony, the bride adopts a red spot on the forehead called “bindi,” which cements her marital status. When she dies, her family wraps her in red fabric for cremation.

As red also depicts dominance, it empowers the saree wearer and draws attention toward her. It’s no surprise that extroverts and A-type personalities prefer red. Pairing a red saree with a gold top amplifies the look. To tone it down, use a silver blouse instead. Accessorize with silver or gold jewelry.

Red is associated with Durga, a Hindu goddess with a red tongue, red eyes, and a blazing image. That’s why devotees use it extensively in prayer rituals. Worshippers throw red powder on deities’ statues during prayer ceremonies and phallic symbols because red is the color of Kshatriya, the warrior caste.  Designers dress charitable, brave, and protective deities in red.

Red also symbolizes fertility and prosperity because it is the color of the clay that produces spices and harvests, which in turn, improve lives.

Orange

Orange attracts attention and energy like the color red, except it’s more sedate. It signifies freshness and brightness. Not all skin tones can carry this color, but for those whose complexions can pull it off in their clothing, it helps put them in a sunny disposition.

According to CNN’s Colorscope report, a series exploring color perception across cultures,  many Eastern religions consider orange a sacred color. In Hinduism, orange represents fire and virtuosity. That’s why their monks wear orange robes. Buddhist ones too.

Saffron

Hindus consider saffron the most sacred color. Like orange, it represents purity and fire (because fire burns impurities). Since orange also signifies religious abstinence, holy people and ascetics have adopted it. Wearing the color denotes the quest for light.

Yellow

Yellow denotes inspiration, intelligence, knowledge, positivity, light, and warmth. South Asians believe it offers the same curative properties proffered by the sun. At spring festivals, people wear yellow outfits and eat yellow-colored food.

Wearing yellow rebalances the chakras and revitalizes the mind. It banishes depression and loneliness. Having shades of yellow and gold in one’s surroundings instantly perks up the mood of everyone in the vicinity.

In the same vein, women who wear yellow sarees tend to be happier. Single women wear yellow to attract partners and to fend off evil spirits. Yellow sarees are excellent choices for daytime functions. The best way to showcase a yellow saree is to pair it with an embroidered blouse. 

A woman wears a yellow saree seven days after her child’s birth to spiritually celebrate this auspicious event. During this period, the new mother honors one or several deities in Pūjā, a Hindu prayer service ritual. Pūjā is a Sanskrit term meaning honor, worship, and reverence.

Yellow sarees are emblematic of sanctity, asceticism, meditation, and piety. That’s why women wear them in prayer ceremonies. The Sadhus and those who relinquished their caste and families embrace the color while adopting a spiritual existence to avoid the eternal cycle of rebirths.

Turmeric, the Golden Powder

Yellow is the color of turmeric, an essential spice in South Asian cuisine derived from a plant of the ginger family. Locals use it for coloring and flavoring food. It is also a fabric dye and an indispensable herbal ingredient applied to soothe the skin.

Turmeric is used to wash and purify the bride on the first day of a Hindu wedding. After this cleansing process, she wears a yellow saree. This practice is particular to the Telugu wedding ceremonies of non-Brahmin communities. (The Telugus are people who live primarily in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and other sectors of southern India.)

Green

Green is comforting, relaxing, stress-relieving, and invigorating. Wear it to revitalize your energy. As green also denotes stability, prosperity, and fresh beginnings, choose it for your saree when starting a new venture. A green saree with gold decor is ideal for parties and outdoor socials, as it encourages fellowship and solidarity in gatherings.

A large percentage of South Asia’s economy is agricultural, so locals associate green with harvest time, spring, fertility, nature, and the outdoors. It denotes a gesture of caring for the environment. South Asians regard it as a manifestation of the Supreme Being or God. It represents authenticity, harmony, and trust. Maharashtrians equate green with life and happiness. That’s why their widows don’t wear green.

Green is the color of the Hindu Vaisya caste, while Muslims consider green as their revered color. In the Deccan plateau’s central and south sections, the women wear green wedding sarees instead of yellow because, in that region, their term for green is similar to yellow.

Blue

Blue is the color of tranquility. People have discovered that the color lowers blood pressure and loosens tight muscles. Mothers use it to pacify restless kids. While it is a calming color, it also spells solitude.

If you feel agitated and reluctant about attending an event, select a sky blue saree. If you want to be comforted, pick Prussian blue or indigo. If you’ve been invited to an art exhibit, choose turquoise. Pick an electric blue saree embedded with crystals or dotted with sequins if you want to uplift sagging spirits. An aquamarine saree with a snazzy cutwork top is a definite scene-stealer.

Lords Krishna and Rama, two of India’s favorite deities, are depicted as blue-colored. It’s because blue represents masculinity, courage, tenacity, strength of character, and the stamina to deal with challenging situations—all qualities of these gods, who devoted their lives to  eradicating evil and preserving the human race.

Blue is the exiled color of the Sudras, the working caste. In ancient times, high-caste Hindus avoided wearing and using blue because they considered the fermentation process for creating the indigo dye as ritually impure. Most Hindus then regarded both blue and black as ill-omened colors, for they reflected misery and portended misfortune.

After the mid-19th century, this concept was abandoned. Women from all socioeconomic  levels started wearing blue and black sarees. Older married women, particularly those living in East India, used blue and black decorative elements on their white sarees. In West India, the tribals and people from the lower castes wore blue outfits as protection against the evil eye.

These days, blue is a favorite region-wide among saree wearers and designers alike. Even widows and older women, who traditionally wore pure white sarees in mourning and at funerals, now wear modern sarees in various understated shades of black, blue, and green.

Pink

Pink is the universal color of femininity. It is associated with romance and contentment. That’s why a pink saree is an excellent choice for a daytime shindig or a date. Accessorize pink sarees with delicate jewelry.

People who wear pink are typically people-persons. They are warmhearted, compassionate, and likable.

Black

Black is the all-time favorite of designers worldwide. It represents power, sincerity, solemnity, integrity, elegance, and decorum. Its versatility ensures that it goes with everything and is suitable for all manner of functions.

Black is the go-to color for formal occasions, awards, ceremonies, business meetings, and political affairs. Black sarees are de rigueur for evening wear at black-tie socials. 

Conversely, people wear black apparel to command respect and compel subordinates and potential business partners to take them seriously. So, black sarees are crucial for job interviews or when competing with colleagues for promotion.

In the old days, people wore black to convey sorrow and grief. In ancient India, black had negative connotations, such as darkness, negativity, sterility, undesirability, anger, apathy, lack of energy, and misfortune. Since black is emblematic of evil, people also used it to annihilate evil.

Black figures prominently in ancient Indian customs. One of these is the practice of nazar utarna (evil-eye protection). It involves placing a tiny black dot of kohl below the ear, on the side of the forehead, or on the chin of a baby to protect it from the evil eye. The logic behind this is that the black spot will make the child ugly, rendering him or her unpalatable to demons. 

Gone are those days of eschewing black. Now, almost everyone and their grandparents wear black to appear chic. And it works!

White

In science, white, the absence of color, is a result of the reflection of wavelengths of visible light. In Hinduism, it is a mixture of seven different colors, signifying a portion of each one’s characteristics.  

South Asians view it as the embodiment of innocence, simplicity, solace, spirituality, and serenity. It is the opposite of red, which represents disorder and brutality. The latter notion may be in direct contrast to the positive characteristics of red mentioned above, but in any society, there are multiple interpretations of concepts, often contradicting one another.

White signifies purification and new beginnings. If you want to rid your life of disenchantment and regret, wear white. Slipping on a white saree is like painting on a blank canvas. You get to start from scratch. With the donning of a white saree comes the adoption of a fresh perspective for the future.

In Hinduism, white is the color of mourning. In the past, white was the sole color widows were allowed to wear. When widows wore white then, they extricated themselves from the enjoyment of mixing with their communities. They denied themselves the usual luxuries of life. This was an obligatory act of self-sacrifice that society imposed on women who not only lost loved ones but were also forced to go into exile.

In northern India, widows still customarily wear white sarees sans any colored ornamentation. To be fair, widows weren’t the only ones who were compelled to wear white. It was customary for all attendees of funerals and death anniversaries to wear white as well. And people are expected to wear white garments during rituals like pujas (prayer services).

The Brahmins and other members of the upper castes have adopted white as their official color. It was because they believe that any type of dyeing is impure. That’s why we see them wearing primarily white. Yet, in southern and western India, traditional Brahmin sarees are dyed in vibrant colors. Ascetic Svetambaras of the Jain sect also stick to white-only clothes.

In terms of socials, white sarees are appropriate for daytime get-togethers and festivals. To add interest to a solid white outfit, go for contrast. Team your saree with a black choli or a cropped top in any dark hue.

Violet or Purple

In Hinduism and Buddhism, violet represents the seventh primary chakra in tantric yoga tradition, the crown chakra (aka Sahasrara). Their scriptures say that this is where the soul separates from the body when a person dies. Scripture writers disagree among themselves as to the exact location of this chakra. Some say it is located at the top of the head. Others say it is based beyond the physical body.

According to the education resource, “Classroom,” purple denotes wisdom, tranquility, and union with God in Hinduism. In Buddhism, the bud of the purple lotus flower (aka the mystic lotus) symbolizes the human heart before it reaches discernment. When in full bloom, it signifies the principles of Buddha.

Conclusion

Saree color symbolism traces its roots to the religions of South Asia. Color interpretations are the result of cultural norms, ancient beliefs, and traditional practices. Although the stringency of these concepts has subsided throughout the centuries, the basic tenets remain.

What can modern saree wearers absorb from this? Historical, spiritual, and cultural awareness is vital for generations to know where they come from. But if we are to evolve as a species, we have to filter this knowledge by choosing the positive aspects, incorporating these into our lives, and discarding the negative ones that no longer serve us.