More than the Colour Red at Visions of Enchantment, Cambridge University

On the 17th March I gave a paper called More than the Colour Red: The unspoken symbolism of cinnabar pigment in Indian painting at a fascinating conference hosted at the University of Cambridge, entitled Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Spirituality and Visual Culture. The conference was a collaboration between the Department of the History of Art at the University of Cambridge and the Arts University of Bournemouth and was organized in association with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). The conference organizers were Judith Noble, Rachel Parikh and Daniel Zamani, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, and has organized similar conferences in the past.

I was intrigued by the scope of the conference, and the presence of senior academics as the opening keynote speakers, Prof.M.E.Warlick (University of Denver) and Prof. Emilie Savage-Smith (University of Oxford). Both speakers were inspiring, opening many doors to the imagination. Prof. Warlick  took us on a comprehensive journey through hermeticism from a feminist point of view, from its growth in the early middle ages (with earlier roots) to the obsessions of Jung, leaving one with a sense that this parallel stream of thinking has been continuously lurking just beneath our creative and intellectual history. Prof. Savage-Smith, who has done some groundbreaking work in researching the history of Islamic science , concentrated on deciphering Islamic talismanic charts, rich with esoteric diagrams, verses and number patterns. I was particularly taken with the idea that there are in existence talismans intended to protect you from the actions of Djinns (Genies) or even to invoke their support!

For me, the remit of the conference served to focus my attention on a body of research that I have been doing privately since I first encountered a lump of sublimated cinnabar in India more than twenty years ago. In my previous post The Colour Red I have introduced its significance across different cultures, including its symbolic connection with the Hindu pantheon.

The lump of sublimated cinnabar was placed in my hand by Shammi Bannu, son of Ved Pal Sharma ‘Bannu’ (1942-2000) – a family who can trace their lineage as court artists back to the great flowering of Rajput painting in the eighteenth century. It looked like some exotic Indian sweet, and I nearly put it into my mouth! Shammi and his brother Virendra showed me how to grind the lump into the fine red Vermilion that is known to Indian artists as Hingaloo

Basholi painting of Krishna and Radha, c. 1660-70, (V&A IS. 47- 1953) with pigments

Basholi painting of Krishna and Radha, c. 1660-70, (V&A IS. 47- 1953) with pigments

Rajput rulers came into their ascendancy as patrons of the arts as Mughal power and patronage waned (17th – 18th centuries), developing distinctive styles that drew on earlier indigenous Indian manuscript painting traditions, focusing on the ideological and philosophical roots of the rulers. The paintings were rich in the complex iconography of Hindu philosophy, with symbolism and allegory taking precedence over the stylistic naturalism of the Mughal schools in which many of the painters had been trained. As you can see in the painting above, the colours are used in a very pure state, and I think that this is in part because the colours carried an inherent symbolism in themselves.

The broad red border of pure cinnabar (Hingaloo) is a common feature of many Rajput schools of painting, and reflects the wide red border on the natural cotton sarees that women used to wear for religious ceremonies or puja. Married women also used to apply powdered cinnabar to their hair as Sindhoor (which is confusingly the word used by artists for red lead, which was never used for this purpose).

RASALike all pre-industrial pigments, cinnabar played an important part in the materia medica of  traditional medicine. The Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda developed during the Medieval period, alongside Rasayana or the art of alchemy. And Rasayana, in turn, was closely connected to the cult of  Tantrism, which focused on meditative practices intended to raise the consciousness of the individual to a universal cosmic dimension. The word Rasayana derives from the Sanskrit word Rasa (pronounced ‘russ’)

'Musa Yantra' apparatus for sublimating mercury and sulphur to produce Hingaloo

‘Musa Yantra’ apparatus for sublimating mercury and sulphur to produce Hingaloo (two earthenware pots over a clay stove fuelled by burning wood or dried cowdung


The word has many shades of meaning. In the simplest sense is means juice, as in the juice of a fruit or the essence of a plant. It also means an emotional essence. A Medieval treatise on the arts, the Vishnudharmottara, lists nine emotional sentiments or Navarasa which should be expressed in painting, music or dance, according to the subject that is depicted. Rasa also means the chemical ‘essences’ of minerals in alchemy, and is applied to mercury in particular. Therefore, the art of alchemy, which centers around the sublimation of mercury and sulphur is known as Rasayana, or the ‘way of mercury’. And as mercury was considered to be the essence of Shiva, the destroyer and the male principle, so the union of his essence with sulphur, representing his consort Shakti, created sublimated cinnabar, or Hingaloomore than merely a red pigment.

At its most esoteric, the art of Rasayana was devoted to creating elixirs which claimed to promote extreme longevity accompanied by youthful vigour, increased libido, and enhanced mental powers. In some cases such elixirs were claimed to bestow magical powers, such as the ability to move in the higher dimensions of the cosmos (where, presumably, you can keep company with the Djinns).

On a more pragmatic level, Hingaloo was a vital ingredient in certain Ayurvedic medicines for curing a range of ailments of the flesh. For example, a concoction was recommended for bronchitis with fever, that contained Hingaloo sublimated with gold and copper, and orpiment (yellow arsenic sulphide) simmered in goat’s milk, and served with honey, chilli peppers and black pepper. Please DON’T be tempted to try it – it is a medieval recipe and would be very harmful to health!

If you would like to read the full paper you can see it here

Finally, a big thank you to Dan Zamani and his colleagues for putting together such an interesting and thought-provoking conference, and to my fellow speakers for some extraordinary contributions. I felt I came away the richer for having attended.