Several weeks ago during Eid Al Adha (an Islamic holiday celebrating the “sacrifice” of Abraham’s son) I traveled to Muscat, Oman to visit friends. Besides boating (see the previous post) we went on a day trip to the town of Nizwa, Oman. Nizwa is an old fort town that celebrates Omani heritage and traditions.
One profession that is dying out in Oman is that of the indigo artisan. I read about and watched a short video that details how indigo is cultivated and produced in Oman. Boy, do I have a newfound respect for the blue jeans I wear every weekend; I see my pair of Luckys in a whole new light.
There are literally less than a handful of active indigo artisans left in Oman. It has reached such alarming levels that the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation is helping finance the training of more men to keep this proud tradition alive.
How Do You Make Indigo Dye? A Brief Description
(1) The indigo plant indigofera tinctoria is cultivated and harvested.
(2) Earthenware jars are filled with water and then stuffed chock-full of indigo plants. The plants soak for hours. The jar is called a khabiyah and it has a plugged hole for drainage about 1 foot above the base.
(3) A tool made from palm sticks is used to stir up the plant material periodically while the plants soak. This tool is called a m’amaal. It looks like a large wooden toothbrush with big “bristles” jutting out from all sides of the base.
(4) The plants are removed once the water turns a blue or black color. The liquid remains in the jar overnight.
(5) The water is then drained by unplugging the hole in the khabiyah. The hole is high enough that the sediments from the plants settle below the drain. The paste in the bottom of the jar is removed and laid out on a fabric surface to bake dry in the sun. While drying it is cut into blocks, which are later used by artisans who dye the fabric.
All and all, it takes about two days to obtain the dried bricks of indigo, called nil or nilah. (This word originally derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘blue.’) It can then take ten days for the indigo to be mixed into a proper dye! This mixture includes: plant ash, lime, dates, and water. Once the mixture has coalesced, the artisan dips fabric into the vat. Once the fabric reaches the desired saturation, it is let dry in the sun. To create a sheen on the fabrics they are burnished with a wadi stone; it can take days to burnish (rub vigorously with the stone) a single sheet of fabric!
Indigo and Arab Cultural Heritage
This process has been practiced for approximately 5,000 years. Originally the color and products dyed with indigo were desired by Bedouin women. They used it for makeup and clothing, including their traditional masks. When a woman died, her body would be wrapped in an indigo-colored shroud. Even in birth rites and marriage ceremonies indigo played a role. When a baby was born its head was rubbed with ointments mixed with indigo. In marriage ceremonies both the bride and groom wear indigo-colored clothes. At the museum in the fort it mentioned people believed indigo to have a mystical nature; having the color on your body was seen to be protective for health and ward off evil.
I truly hope the grant from the US Ambassadors fund helps prevent the death of indigo craftsmanship. Traveling to Nizwa was a fun and educational trip. I want to go back when the Heritage Gallery is open so I can purchase some fabric goods made in this tradition! I also hope some young Omanis realize they are losing a craft worth keeping. I am inspired that ultimately, a color could have so much influence and importance within a culture.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: We think about mass production and quality of product in our ever increasing commercial lives but have we forgotten the artistic traditions and creative endeavor that generate such ideas? Support artisans who remember your traditions or that of others. There is no better gift this holiday season than an original artwork and supporting the innovators who help create and sustain our cultural heritage.
Want a good article describing Eid Al Adha? Click here.
Articles that helped me write about indigo dying and Oman: