BODHGAYA, India — Rattled, dusty and cold, I stepped out of the taxi that had ferried me from the rail station to this holy city. Before I’d even had a chance to blink, I was drawn to the sight of a souvenir seller displaying his wares on a sidewalk.
Among the tchotchkes arranged on the merchant’s small table were bags of pigments in brilliant hues of yellow, orange and red, spanning from fluorescent to fiery-earth. Having been fascinated by the essence of color as a fledgling art student, I remembered an old painting teacher’s tale of where the pale-ochre tint of Indian yellow came from — cow urine.
It was one of the many pieces of trivia I have carried around in my head for years, part of my invisible museum of useless knowledge, and as I shuttled to and from various art classes over the years, I took a silent pride in knowing the provenance of Indian yellow, as well as various other colors with fancy, geographically descriptive names — Turkey red, Burnt Siena, Venetian red — too numerous in my wooden painting box for me to know what to do with. But Indian yellow, I could look at and think: I know you.
Except the bovine tale isn’t true.
The primary account of where Indian yellow gets its rich tones — the color of a tangerine left out in the sun to dry — was based on a report by civil servant T.N. Mukharji (1847-1919) of Kolkata who claimed to have learned about the process in Monghyr, located in northeastern Bihar. Indian yellow, he said, came from dried urine collected from cows fed a diet of only mango leaves and water.
Scottish chemist John Stenhouse in 1844 analyzed the purrée, or dye balls of dried urine, and determined that Indian yellow pigment originated from “the juice of some tree or plant, which, after it has been expressed, has been saturated with magnesia and boiled down to its present consistence.”
More recently, Victoria Finlay in her 2004 book, “Color: A Natural History of the Palette,” investigated further and found no corroborating evidence in research that took her from London to Kolkata to Monghyr — thus the legend of Indian yellow might very well be bull.