Parani / Altha & Saris
Updated: Mar 31
"Didi! Nah! Foto tulbe na! Altha uthe gyache!"
(‘Sister, don’t click a picture. Altha has faded.’ in Bengali). She shied away from my phone. I persisted. She gave in. These calloused feet have looked up silently at torn saris, fallen roofs and dry skies. Today, they were decorated with ‘Parani’ or ‘Aaltha’ — a bright red, dye-like liquid applied on the sides of the feet to keep them from cracking and getting infected. It is also deeply symbolic and auspicious for her.
Parani or altha (a.k.a awalata, mahawar or Rose Bengal) denotes blood, fertility, health and prosperity. Women, mostly in the East, South, and other parts of India, use it to decorate their feet. And it is primarily applied while celebrating auspicious occasions, festivals, weddings (grooms apply it, too), and even pregnancies. Indian classical dancers (of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi) till date apply it to their palms and feet in a minimalistic way to highlight hand symbols or mudras. Historically, Lord Krishna is said to have applied this dye to his beloved Radha’s feet. Hindu idols and images of Goddesses like Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Kali and Durga are always seen flaunting it. Parani is also part of the 16 bridal adornments (Sholah Shringar) listed in the Vedas.
Traditionally, it was made with lac or betel leaves, or a mixture of water, turmeric and slaked quick lime powder (‘Chuna’). In Andhra and other South Indian states kuṅkumam (Sanskrit कुङ्कुमम्), kumkuma (Telugu కుంకుమ), kunku (Marathi कुंकू), kumkum (Bengali কুমকুম, Hindi कुमकुम), kunkuma (Kannada ಕುಂಕುಮ), kungumam (Tamil குங்குமம்), and kuṅkumam (Malayalam കുങ്കുമം) (copy-pasted from Wikipedia) is used with turmeric and water to make this dye. Note: Turmeric or curcuma longa from the ginger-family is antiseptic and anti-bacterial in nature. And so is slaked quick lime that is calcium hydroxide — an inorganic compound. Unfortunately, the newer version of altha is a synthetic composition (dye).
But its visual story or language (symbolism) today comes with a genderised and regressive tag of sorts. Very unlike its longer-lasting cousin Mehendi, which has reached a stylish cult status in India and across the world. We suggest you try breaking parani or altha’s mould by sporting it as a trend with your sari. You could drape an off-white sari — Kashta, Navaari or Nivi style with pleats above your ankles — and add parani as a pop of colour. Or wear any monochrome sari while you flaunt the dye. You could even make curvi-linear designs using an ear bud or matchstick. Just google ways to make it as organically as possible at home.