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Renaissance Goo

Renaissance Goo

A historian of the body and a soft matter scientist experiment with Renaissance personal care recipes

Saffron-hued Skin: Seeking ideals of beauty in Early Modern North India

Reading Time: 8 minutes

In this blog post, the IASH postdoctoral fellow for the Renaissance Goo project, Dr Sonia Wigh, tackles ideas about skin colour in Indian early modern texts. Having white skin was often fetishized in European texts about ideal beauty, and this has been linked to early colonial ideas and the formation of racial identity. How did skin colour relate to beauty outside of Europe? Sonia’s post gives us insights and raises questions.

Early nineteenth century Indian illustration showing the naked goddess Radha glowing saffron as she swims in a pool

From an illustrated Satsai, Jaipur c., 1810, ‘The Saffron Skin of the Beloved’, Linden Museum, Stuttgart.



‘Wherever that capricious bather takes the plunge
She lends the waters there a saffron tinge,’[1]

In his Satsaī (seven-hundred verses), the seventeenth-century Braj poet Bihārīlāl brought rīti kāvya (esoteric poetry) and śṛṅgāra rasa (aestheticized love) to life. He created nakh-shikh (head-to-toe) couplets serenading beautiful nāyikās (heroines), while simultaneously creating typologies of ideal and non-ideal women.[2] In this couplet, he imagined the heroine’s skin to have a saffron-hued aura, so much so that the water would be tinged with it. Bihārīlāl’s verse was imagined by the unnamed artist (in the early nineteenth century) as a tryst between the gods: Radha and Krishna, where the former’s saffron-gold skin visibly set her apart from the hordes of other women (or her sakhi/ companions) who wanted to be involved with Krishna.

Even when hyperbolic in nature and style, such poetic compositions were theoretically reflective of contemporary beauty standards. In this age of fairness creams and colourist advertising campaigns, it is important to revisit the eroto-medical and poetic traditions of medieval and early modern South Asia to understand how notions of female beauty and aspirational skin colour have evolved over time. This blog provides a preliminary overview of beauty ideals or the ‘idea of beautification’ in erotological and medical texts operating within the broader framework of Ayurvedic medical traditions prevalent in early modern South Asia.[3] From a cursory survey, it seems that on one hand, there are many poetic instances of serenading the fair-skinned maiden.[4] On the other hand, a dark-hued woman was considered the ‘ideal’ beauty, although any marks or spots on her skin were generally discouraged, irrespective of skin colour. While early modern eroto-medical texts contain prescriptions to ‘remove spots’ on the body and to make ‘skin glow like the autumnal moon’, beauty ideals were not completely homogenous.

Scholars like Kumkum Roy, Daud Ali, and Shalini Shah have demonstrated that ancient and early medieval Kāmaśāstric (erotological) literature contributed to and was influenced by the Caraka Samḥitā (medical) and Dharmśastric (legal) tradition.[5] Following that thread of interconnected genres, I turn towards Bhaviṣyapurāṇa, one of the eighteen major Purāṇas (sacred literature) of Hinduism, composed in Sanskrit between sixth and seventh centuries of the Common Era, and containing the richest collection of the marks on men and women. These marks or lakṣaṇa were considered physiognomic omens that indicated auspicious and inauspicious outcomes as well as dictated an individual’s qualitative behavioural pattern. As Bhaviṣyapurāṇa contained prophecies regarding the future, it continued to be relevant in medieval and early modern ethical and śāstric paradigms. In the section on strīlakṣaṇa (women’s marks), the positive and negative apodoses (effects of the omens) for a woman are always in relation to providing wealth, prosperity, and male heirs to her husband and his family.[6] One such description within the text reads: ‘A women’s complexion that appears dark, yellow, golden and saffron-coloured and that resembles the blades of Dūrva-grass brings about good fortune.’[7] Apart from the reiteration of ‘golden and saffron’, the woman’s dark skin is in fact desirable, even a harbinger of fortune for her husband. In fact, when describing the colour yellow in Kavipriyā (Handbook for poets, 1601), the Braj poet, Keshavdas of Orccha wrote:

Lord Brahma fashioned turmeric out of Parvati’s fair-hued body so they share the name maṅgalī (auspicious one) …
Slightly soiling her fair color with the hue of gold, he created the lotus calix.[8]

Keshavdas acknowledged that the goddess Parvati, the female Principle, consort of the God Shiva, and harbinger of good fortune, was meant to be fair-skinned but was tinged with yellow, when Lord Brahma took the brightness of her body to create lightening during storms. Clearly, the poet was drawing on pre-existing tropes associating beautiful saffron-hued skinned women with prosperity, especially connecting a physiognomic mark with household wealth.

This appreciation of a darker-hued beauty found resonance in the Ratīśāstric tradition, usually categorized as erotological manuals produced for courtly consumption. While the Ratīrahasya (Secrets of Love), where Ratī was the wife of Kāma (the god of love), was composed by Pandit Koka in the latter half of the twelfth century, the Ratīśāstra emerged as a literary tradition only around 1600.[9] Within the Ratīśāstra, ‘if a girl has a dark complexion, lovely hair, a thin line of hair on her belly, lovely behaviour, a fine walk, excellent teeth, a waist thin … she would be a suitable wife, even if she is forsaken by her family.’[10] In another instance, ‘the best woman is described as neither too tall nor too short. She is slender with a swarthy complexion.’[11] So, how did one obtain this golden hue? The answer lay in both contemporary Ayurvedic treatises as well as erotological manuals with sizeable medical context, usually written in the ambit of Ayurvedic humoral understandings. In the Ratīrahasya, ‘if a paste made by mixing black sesamum, black Jiraka (cumin), Siddhartha, and plain Jiraka (cumin) is applied on the face, it not only makes the face glow but also hides the spots on one’s body.’[12] While the ingredients might differ, the general remedies for obtaining a clearer complexion are not new but building upon earlier Ayurvedic texts, indicating continued circulation of this medical knowledge in the early modern erotological texts.

Another example can be sought from the Kokasāra, authored by Nand and Mukund in the early seventeenth century.[13] The following prescription is for an ‘ubṭan’ (paste, to be applied on the body), the ultimate aim of which is to make an individual beautiful (bimal rūp rāje bad, kañchan baran sam hoī):


८४।। अथ उबटन विधि ।।

हर(द?) गोषरू सौठि नष।

मोठा सरसौं जानि।

कासमीरी कफूर लघु टांक टांक सब आनि।

८५। चारि टांक चंदन प्रस- सम कुसंम तिहि डारि।

नवल चिरौजी टांक दस।

पीसहु सकल सवारि।

८६। सब चूरन कटू तेल मही।

करै जु उबटनु कोई।

बिमल रुप राजै बद।

कंचन बरन सम होई।।[14]

The prescription includes ingredients such as Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris), Moṭha (Cyperus Rotundus), kafūr (camphor) [possibly from Kashmir (Kāsmīrī)], and Chironji (Buchanania Latifolia). All of them had multiple purposes, but most of them were astringents meant to reduce blemishes and tighten the skin. Gokshura was an astringent known to be ‘cooling, diuretic, tonic, and … [used even in] gonorrhoea and dysuria.’[15] Moṭha was also an astringent, best known as a treatment for ulcers and sores.[16] Even though camphor is hot and dry, in the Ayurvedic understanding, it is also commonly prescribed as a cooling application to the skin in inflammatory conditions. The above-mentioned prescription also specified the quantity of each ingredient as well as the method of preparation: grinding and mixing with oil. After applying the paste, one would not only obtain blemish free (bimal) skin, but (almost as a nod to Bhaviṣyapurāṇa) would be harbingers of ‘golden’ skin, prosperity, and grace (kañchana baran sam hoyi).[17]



A multi-genre, intertextual study is needed to fully explore and synthesize an understanding of skin colour, especially for women, in medieval and early modern South Asia. While this blogpost only focuses on Braj and Sanskritic texts, there was also an intersecting tradition of skincare remedies broadly formulated under the humoral understandings promulgated by Unani medicine, and described in Persian erotological, medical, and poetic texts. These Sanskritic and Persianate textual traditions encapsulate societal anxieties about a woman’s body. These skincare prescriptions offer a glimpse into social mentalities and the conventionalization of various attributes to be an ideal, eligible bride. While the circulation of these texts was primarily meant for a courtly audience, it is still reflective of patriarchal societal aspirations that slowly but surely shaped conceptions of women’s beauty over time.



[1] Rupert Snell, Biharilal: Poems from the Satsai, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021), p. 29. Snell adds that ‘the yellow of the saffron suggests the heroine’s fairness and is contrasted by the lake waters’, f.n. 54, p. 124.

[2] Rasas are nine highly evolved sentiments/ emotions holding the prime position in Sanskritic aesthetic theory. For a thorough exploration of the concept and nine types of rasas, see Daud Ali, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 184-205. On Braj poetry in early modern South Asia, see Allison Busch, Poetry of Kings: The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India (New York, Oxford University Press, 2011), and Sandhya Sharma, Literature, Culture and History in Mughal North India: 1550-1800, (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2011).

[3] Ayurveda, the indigenous medical system of India, dates back at least two thousand years in its codified form and has roots that are much deeper still. For more see, Dominik Wujastyk, The Roots of Āyurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings, (New Delhi: Penguin, 1998), and Dagmar Wujastyk, and Frederick M. Smith (eds), Modern and Global Ayurveda: Pluralism and Paradigms, (New York: SUNY Press, 2008).

[4] While describing the women in the harem of Bir Singh Deo Bundela, the Braj poet Keshavdas wrote: ‘Their perfect, round, fair cheeks are delicately molded with beauty and playfulness.’ This is one of the many examples from rīti poetry celebrating fair-skinned maidens. Busch, Poetry of Kings, p. 71.

[5] Kumkum Roy, ‘Unraveling the Kamasutra’, in M. E. John & J. Nair (eds), A question of silence: The sexual economies of modern India, (Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998); Shalini Shah, ‘Representation of Female Sexuality in the Ayurvedic Discourse of the Early Medieval Period’, Studies in History, 22:1 (2006), pp. 45-58; Daud Ali, ‘Rethinking the History of the Kāma World in Early India’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 39 (2011), pp.1-13.

[6] Kenneth Zysk, The Indian System of Human Marks, (Leiden: Brill, 2015), pp. 85-87.

[7] ‘phalinīrocanāhemakuṅkumaprabha eva ca/ varṇaḥ śubhakaraḥ strīṇāṃ yaś ca dūrvāṅkuropamaḥ//’, Zysk, The Indian System of Human Marks, p. 385.

[8] Busch, Poetry of Kings, pp.41-42.

[9] Kenneth Zysk, Conjugal Love in India: Ratiśāstra and Ratiramana; text, translation, and notes, (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2002), p. 6. Ratiśāstra was sometimes referred to as the ‘Kokkokaśāstra’, as an ode to Pandit Koka or Kokkoka, it’s supposed author. While this śāstra put forth the authorized brahmanic teachings on conjugal love (rati), it needs to be read in conjunction with the slightly younger text, Ratiramaṇa, authored by Siddhanāgārjuna to fully understand their contents and social impact. See, Kenneth Zysk, ‘Animal Usage in the Sanskrit traditions of Lovemaking, Lawful Conjugal Love, and Medicine’, in Nalini Balbir and Georges-Jean Pinault (eds.), Penser, dire et représenter l’animal dans le monde indien (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2009), pp. 287-303, p. 293; and ‘Introduction’, Conjugal Love in India, pp. 1-39. These texts formed the basis for future translations into Braj and Persian.

[10] Kenneth Zysk, Conjugal Love in India: Ratiśāstra and Ratiramana; text, translation, and notes, (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2002), p. 77.

[11] Zysk, Conjugal Love, p. 78.

[12] S.C Upadhyaya, The Hindu Secrets of Love: Rati Rahasya of Pandit Kokkoka, (trans.), (Bombay: D.B Taraporevala Sons & co., 1965), p. 98.

[13] On the Kokasāra tradition, see Sonia Wigh, ‘The Body of Words: A Social History of Sex and the Body in Early Modern South Asia’ (Unpublished thesis: University of Exeter, 2021), p. 158, and Nadia Cattoni, ‘The Koksār by Ānand Kavi: A Popular Erotic Book’, in Imra Bangha and Danuta Stasik (eds),

Literary Cultures in Early Modern North India—Current Research, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[14] Nand and Mukund, Kokasāra, Wellcome Collection, Ms. Hindi 197, [undated, 18th cen.], folio 2-3. Translation is mine.

[15] William Dymock, Pharmacographia Indica: A History of principal drugs of Vegetable Origin met with in British India, Volume 1, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1890), p.243-4.

[16] William Dymock, Pharmacographia Indica: A History of principal drugs of Vegetable Origin met with in British India, Volume 3, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1893), p.552.

[17] Kañchana literally means gold, while ‘kañchana barasna’ is indicative of the presence of ‘śōbha aur samṛddhi’ beauty, wealth, and prosperity.



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