Originally, Holi Gulal Was Made With Fruits, Herbs, and Leaves!
Image Credit: Yellow gulal prepared with marigold flowers and turmeric, Shutterstock

The original name for the coloured powders used in several Hindu rites, most notably the Holi festival or Dol Purnima, is gulal. In Bengal, it goes by the phrase abir; in Odisha, it is abira. Holi is a festival where people celebrate love and equality by showering coloured powder mixes on each other and merrymaking. Holi participants in the modern-day purchase gulal, or coloured powder, from markets. In recent years, many complaints have been made that the chemically treated colours used in this festival are harmful to the skin and the environment. Thus, it has paved the way for organic gulals as the preferred choice. Yet it will take some time before we observe a dramatic change. How many of you, however, know that the original Holi gulal comprised edible plants, flowers, and leaves? That's shocking, huh?

Herbal gulal is a phrase that we hear quite often these days. Typically, turmeric (Curcuma longa), Indigo (Indigofera), and Annatto (Bixa Orellana) are just a few of the natural dyes that may be used to make Herbal gulal.  But these aren't modern inventions.

The history of Holi and gulal

The legends surrounding the Holi festival tell the tale of Krishna's birth and early life. Compared to his girlfriend Radha, he felt his skin was too dark and expressed this displeasure to his mother. This prompted Krishna's mom to put some colour onto Radha's face. This is why people today celebrate Holi by smearing each other in colour powder.

From organic to inorganic

Flowers from plants with medicinal characteristics, such as the Indian coral tree and the flame of the forest, were once used to make gulal powders, which were applied topically. The development of synthetic dyes in the middle of the 19th century, combined with the subsequent decline of urban forest cover and the need to maximise profits, led to the gradual phase-out of natural colours.

Some new industrial dyes are harmful to the skin and eyes because they are made using non-standard chemical procedures with non-standard parameters, leading to colours that can trigger reactions, including eczema, dermatitis, and hives.

Conventional colourants

According to popular belief, viruses like the common cold and flu spread more frequently in the spring when the weather shifts. The neem, haldi, bilva, and other medicinal herbs recommended by ayurvedic practitioners are traditionally used to make the natural coloured powders thrown in the game of gulal.

Combining the three fundamental hues creates a wide range of secondary shades. Some common natural plant-based dyes are listed below. 

Red gulal made with edible flowers like rose, Image Source: Shutter Stock

Red, orange and green

Flowers of the Palash or tesu tree, often known as the flame of the forest, are a vivid orange and crimson. The colour red can also be obtained from other foods and plants, such as powdered fragrant red sandalwood, dried hibiscus blossoms, madder tree, radish, and pomegranates. In the same way, that orange powder may be made by combining lime and turmeric powder, saffron can be made by heating the spice in water. For its vibrant hue, the gulmohur tree's dried leaves are a reliable source. The green pigment is extracted from the leaves of spring crops and herbs in several regions.

Palash or flame of the forest for orange gulal, Image Source: Dreamstime


Turmeric, also known as haldi, provides the yellow colour. This is sometimes combined with chickpea (gram) flour or another flour to achieve the desired colour. Yellow can also be derived from bael fruit, amaltas, certain kinds of chrysanthemum, and some species of marigold.


It is customary to use blue dye made from the blue indigo plant, Indian berries, some varieties of grapes, blue hibiscus, or jacaranda flowers for Holi.

Colours using beetroots 


Beetroots have long been used as a reliable resource for producing magenta and purple pigments. Most of the time, they are cooked right into the water to make coloured drinks.


Grapes from the black species, amla (gooseberry) fruit, and vegetable carbon (charcoal) all provide shades of grey and black.