Saffron colour in India is often seen as a part of renunciation, an age old concept of leaving materialistic world in order to sublimate life, attain wisdom and ultimately deliverance from the entanglements of life. With the demolition of Babri Masjid, this colour however has come to be seen as a part of the Hindutva ideology. The transition of the Hindu religion to the ideology of Hindutva takes place when the fundamental principles of Hinduism are pushed aside for aggressively bringing out a violent nationalism in the lines of religion and hatred for other religions. There is a symbiotic relationship with the perpetrators of Hindutva and the dominant right wing political ideology; one results into the other and they mutually support for the perpetuation of political as well as religious ideologies. With this transition, the calm and collected faces of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses are replaced with the divinities that have ferocious faces, muscled bodies and too many weapons of mass or selective destruction. Now we have a set of avenging gods and goddesses. In the political scenario we see the leaders are welcomed by giving the replicas of the weapons like tridents, clubs, bows and swords. Unfortunately, the colour saffron remains a backdrop of all these events.
The saffron, soft brown, orange and kavi (an Indian variation of saffron with a muddy effect) are the variation of the same colour. Depending on the situation the meanings of these colours change. In the national flag of India, we see the saffron colour at the top layer. It connotes tolerance, courage and strength. While the middle layer white and the lower level green have universal meanings like ‘purity’ and ‘fertility’ respectively, saffron does not have any such universal meanings. It is entirely an Indian colour. It has more to do with the kind of saffron or Kavi worn by the Indian mendicants and sages. There is an indirect connotation that India is predominantly a Hindu nation because the meanings attributed to saffron colour or kavi (courage, strength and tolerance) are not seen elsewhere in the world. In the global scenario, orange colour has got the meaning of being ‘distinct’ or distinctively seen. But this meaning is not exclusive to orange colour. It is applicable to green, yellow and red too. That’s why these colours are universally used in traffic regulations.
In Indian psyche, saffron has got a lot of authority and respectability. When someone leaves the worldly pleasures, possessions and the very desire to possess anything, in the Indian context he or she prefers to wear saffron clothes. There is a vast history to it. Before we go into that history, it is pertinent to understand the relevance of this colour or the meanings that it has gained over a period of time. We have seen it in the rallies of all the right wing parties including the ruling BJP. Leaders like Sakhshi Maharaj, Uma Bharati, Swadhi Prachi, Adityanath, Baba Ramdev and so on wear saffron clothes when they appear in the public domain. The founder leader of Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, late Bal Thakaray used to wear silk saffron robes to assert his political as well as spiritual authority over the Marathi populace. At times, even our Prime Minister Mr.Narendra Modi appears in public meetings wearing semi saffron shirts, which are specially designed for him. This indirectly and subconsciously establishes the fact that political authority has got the same sacrificial authority and right of the spiritual sages and monks who have sacrificed their worldly lives for a life beyond. What Khadi was for Congress is today saffron is for the right wing forces.
It is not necessary that all those people who wear Khadi (a coarse cotton cloth believed to be hand spun) are automatically Congress members. If so do we have to believe that all those who wear saffron or kavi are right wing or Hindutva people? If ‘yes’ is the answer, then we will have to believe that most of the youngsters in Kerala are right wing or Hindutva followers. It is true that in Kerala the number of youngsters who wear saffron dhotis, tie ritual bands around the wrists and wear sandal paste marks on the foreheads (all underlining their membership/belongingness to the Hindu religion) is on the increase. But we cannot make a blanket assumption that all of them belong to the Hindutva fold. Anybody who lives in Kerala or has travelled to Kerala knows it for sure that youngsters of such religious markings are not often seen in the temple premises or such religious places but in the auto rickshaw stands and market junction, the places that are considered to be liberal political and socio-cultural discursive spaces in Kerala. This extends to the other controlled public spaces like barber shops, teashops, reading rooms, tailoring shops, evening addas, clubs, junctions and so on. The youngsters (and old people too) who gather in these places belong to different religions, castes and political denominations. Wearing these religious marks, they without any qualms or ideological differences share gossip, news, spicy jokes and above all hottest video clips via whatsapp. These are the same people in Kerala who despite having all the so called Hindutva marks on them, go to the local restaurants and relish ‘beef and parotta’ without feeling any guilt as their counterparts would in the northern parts of our country.
If we analyze further, this dress code gravitates to the temple premises when there are some festivals that enhance the youthful energies at various levels. It is not always religions, I should say. In Kerala most of the temple festivals are related to the harvest that happens by the month of March. The months that follow before Monsoon, that means the months of April and May are full of festivals in Kerala. During these festival days, the youngsters go to these temples wearing these religious marks but that does not mean that all of them have hardcore Hindutva ideology. I have seen the local communist party offices open every day by some party workers after lighting a lamp or incense sticks. It is not necessary that they do it before the photographs of the gods. But one could miss the photographs of Karl Marx, Engels, EMS Namboothirippadu, P.Krishna Pillai and so on not far from the invisible altar. There are two types of dhotis in Kerala; white and colourful ones. The latter is called Kaili or lungi or pesa. White dhotis are always worn by people who have a stable income or are generally rich. It exudes some kind of social dignity. An average Malayali boy establishes his social dignity and maturity by wearing a white dhoti. He has to practice how to wear it folded right up to the knee but not by obscenely flaunting the thighs. Also he has to learn (to prove his social worth) to ride a cycle without folding a white dhoti. These cultural trappings are extremely important to a Kerala youngster. The second category of dhoti, which is kaili is not gender specific. It could be worn by both men and women. There used to be kailis only with horizontal and vertical lines. Gulf returnees brought liberally designed lungis with big flowers blooming at odd places. With the folding of a lungi and the measures of thighs exposed could determine the cultural upbringing of a youth in Kerala.
It was in this socio-cultural landscape, K.J.Yesudas, the well known singer came with his set of Ayyappa devotional songs. He had established his music studio in Trivandrum called Tharangini and it was pertinent for him to churn out devotional songs of various kinds depending on the season to satisfy the audio culture of the god fearing Malayalis. One of the songs that became a huge hit went like this: ‘River Ganges takes birth in Himalayas while the River Pamap takes birth in Sabarimala’. The second stanza of the same song goes like this: ‘Devotees wear saffron and go to Varanasi and they wear black when they go to Sabarimala’. Sabarimala being the most famous pilgrim centres in Kerala and Lord Ayyappa, the residing deity of this forest temple, most of the people irrespective of religion went to this place wearing whatever clothes they wanted. It was not necessary that one should wear black clothes when they went to Sabarimala. Devotees from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu chose to wear black because their preference black had a lot of do with the anti-Brahminical stance of the Dravidian parties. Also legends said that Lord Ayyappa was a Buddhist deity who was later got co-opted by the Brahminical Hinduism. The Dravidian lineage of Lord Ayyappa must be a reason for the devotees’ choice of black clothes, though it was not underlined till 1980s. Famous actor Amitabh Bacchan visited Sabarimal after his life threatening accident, wearing black. So many celebrities started visiting the place followed by this famous visit of the super star. We should also see the possibility of black becoming an official dress of Sabarimal thanks to the arrival of the colour television in 1980s, with them beaming the visuals from the temple to thousands of households in Kerala, which influenced the visual thinking of the devotees.
There was a time in Kerala when people asked anybody who grew beard or wore saffron clothes whether they were going for pilgrimage or had renounced the world. Beard and saffron clothes, as I mentioned elsewhere, are still etched in the minds of the Indian people as part and parcel of detachment from the worldly affairs. However, with the recent release of the movie titled ‘Premam’ (Love), and also with the heroes in this move wearing black clothes, white dhotis and sporting thick beards have brought in a new situation in Kerala that nobody any longer asks someone about their worldly detachment upon seeing a beard or black or saffron dhoti. Initially the saffron coloured dhoti was worn by the people who used to work in and around the temples. With a new market opening for the coloured lungis, youngsters started wearing multi coloured lungis. They predominantly chose to wear saffron lungis because it gave some nascent sense of authority and piety. Without being a hardcore Hindu (Hindutva ideologue), one could get an ‘identity’ which is at once confirming and rebelling, in the social sphere. It was something similar to the Kerala women ‘virally’ choosing to wear a gown called ‘nightie’ as their ‘power dressing’. Availability, affordability and convenience were the reasons that made women to choose this cloth. Same was the case with the saffron dhotis. The design was/is simple and is convenient to do any kind of daily chores. The advantage of both the nighties and saffron lungies is this that both of them remain or look ‘clean’ despite the layers of grime, soot and dirt collected on them. Even if someone sees that it is dirty, one could easily pass it off as a part of the daily grind.
Many centuries before India became today’s India, our sages had worn saffron clothes. They too understood the fact that it remained clean despite the gathering of dust and dirt. They could wash it on the river banks and dry it in the field winds. A pair of saffron clothes could take them to the whole of the world if they wanted to do so. Gandhiji in a sense emulated this saintly way of clothing when he joined India’s independence struggle. The sages need not have thought about the ‘beauty’ of their clothes as they wandered along the hills, valleys, jungles, hamlets, towns and cities. Even if they had worn white clothes initially, as they went along and as these clothes gathered dust they automatically understood that they dusty and muddy colour would make it less ‘dirty’. They started using plants, petals, roots and stones to make dyes to colour their clothes into saffron. As the Hindu religion evolved mainly because of the sagacious interventions in terms of making codes and rules for the society, and general philosophies for life, the colour saffron came to have the meanings of detachment and wisdom. When Hinduism moved towards the four tier system of caste oppression and when it became more and more oppressively ritualistic, Buddha, the enlightened, quarreled with it and established a new order. He too, however chose to wear saffron clothes.
Hardcore Buddhist followers as well as Buddhist monks these days wear different variants of saffron colour and also colours like orange, yellow, brown, white and so on. In fact Buddha had chosen saffron/kavi as his robe. The reason for this choice was not really a ‘Hindu’ one. In those days, saffron was the robe given to the people like outcastes, orphans, criminals, diseased people with contagious illnesses, insane people and so on so that they could be identified within the mainstream society and be kept at bay. Buddha in his rebellious way of approaching things adopted the robes of the outcastes as his own dress as well as for his own congregation. The meaning of saffron/kavi that Buddha saw or rather prevalent in those days was ‘something which was not pure’. This could be interpreted as something ‘dirty’, ‘bad’, ‘not good looking’, ‘not in style’ and ‘for wiping things clean including excrement’. What for the mainstream society was not good and clean was good and clean for Buddha. He chose this because a Buddhist monk could be identified from a distance itself. He was in fact declaring his allegiance with the outcastes of the society by choosing their dress code. However, as the ironical twists of history that always happen, Buddhism became a predominant religion in India and in South East Asia. With this Buddha’s saffron robe also got respectability. It is another historical irony that it was another saffron wearer who defeated Buddhism by arguing well for Hinduism and united it from the four corners of India, Adi Shankara. Another irony of it was that he was from Kerala. Slowly, the robes of the dispossessed became the garments of the authorities. To this we could see the slow entry of saffron and saffron silk.
In the 21st century, the century of naked globalization and imperialism sans adequate resistance, saffron/Kavi got new meanings. When the Iraqi revolutionaries who were the collaborators and followers of Saddam Hussein’s regime were arrested by the United States of America, they were taken to the infamous detention centre at Guantanamo Bay near Cuba and were forced to wear saffron/Orange jumpsuits. The meaning of the colour of social outcasts was once again brought to it in Guantanamo Bay prisons. That’s why it is said that when the ISIS captures white journalists and soldiers, before beheading them on camera, they are forced to wear orange jumpsuits; a sort of revenge using the cryptic symbolism of the orange/saffron/kavi colour. Most of the geniuses of the last century also had seen the potential of the saffron/kavi colour. Sree Narayana Guru, the late 19th century and early 20th century social reformer, poet and philosopher in Kerala chose to wear white and later yellow instead of saffron because he knew that the extreme sense of Brahminical Hinduism was being attributed to the saffron colour then itself. Gandhiji could have opted for saffron but he preferred to go for home spun cotton’s white because he knew that the choice of saffron would have terribly polarized the country along religious lines. The move was already on in Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s sort of Hinduism within the Congress fold. Rabindranath Tagore was called Gurudev and had all the possibilities of being seen in saffron but he resisted using saffron at all. Instead he used exotic clothes to design his own robes that reflected his position in the universe as an Eastern mystic. Dr.B.R.Ambedkar resisted the onslaught of Brahminical Hinduism by making a sartorial revolution within the Mahar community by preferring to be seen in blue three piece suits. He would later convert to Buddhism. But there too he did not choose saffron. I wish the alternative meaning of saffron/Kavi once again came back to our discourse so that we could actively resist the aggressive posture of saffron in the public domain of India.
Post script: I have opted saffron/kavi khadi dhotis into my daily wear. I am still negotiating whether I should wear it outside or not.
(Images are taken from the internet for Illustrative purposes only)
(Images are taken from the internet for Illustrative purposes only)