The Story of Khaki
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com

Khaki has ruled me since the time I joined school even before my fifth birthday. The students’ uniform at St Aloysius – the alma mater which shaped my formative years for the next twelve years, was a white shirt tucked inside khaki shorts. And then in the Boy Scouts even the shirt turned khaki with a blue scarf round my neck and badges of green thrown in for colour. Later when I joined the NCC, it was full khaki again, with only the shorts replaced by long trousers.

From college stepping into the big bad world, fate willed me khaki again in the Indian police service, which I joined. A foray for a while into the black-coats world of the legal fraternity, in between, did not really last too long. And now that in the superannuated state I no longer have the stamp of khaki on me, my curiosity has got the better of me to really know something on khaki!

The story of khaki goes back to its origin from the Farsi or Persian word khak (dirt). Prior to British colonization, Persian was a widely used second language in our Indian subcontinent. While for India’s present generations it is a forgotten entity, Persian today continues to be spoken in Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Southern Russia, neighboring countries, and elsewhere. In pre-British India it took prominence as the language of culture and education in several Muslim courts in the subcontinent throughout the Middle Ages and became the ‘official language’ under the Mughal emperors.

As British influence spread through the land, from 1832 onwards the colonial powers forced the subcontinent to begin conducting business in English instead of the traditional Persian. While doing so, they did not hesitate to borrow and assimilate into the English language a considerable lot of the local vocabulary and especially such as described native names, mores and attributes. And so the entry into the English language the Persian word khak-i (dust-y) through its equivalent Hindi/Urdu loan word meaning earth-coloured or dust coloured.

In the mid-1800s, British soldiers in India in search of camouflage against hostile surroundings began dyeing their white uniforms to a dusty colour using anything from muddy water to tea. Soon they came upon the discovery that locals were using a reliable dye called Cutch in their cotton fabric industry for calico-prints. The dye created the colour of khak, an Indian word for dust, earth, and ashes.

But cutch, they further discovered, was the same as the astringent ‘catechu’ – an extract from the local khair-tree considered native to the Indian sub-continent and especially to an area extending from Pakistan to Burma. Catechu was prepared by concentrating a strong aqueous decoction of the reddish inner wood of the khair-tree, and pouring it into square clay moulds to dry. And this Catechu was a medicine used to treat oral ulcers and gum diseases, diarrhoea and dysentery, and chronic catarrh (inflammation of the mucosal membranes). Even singers dissolved small pieces of catechu in their mouths to relax the throat and treat laryngitis.

The British credit Lieutenant (later Lieutanent-general and eventually Sir) Harry Burnett Lumsden as the inventor of Khaki. In December 1846, Lumsden founded the Corps of Guides – a regiment that would be stationed at Mardan on the Peshawar border, which was to be composed of trustworthy men to act as guides for troops and to gather intelligence. To outfit his men, Lumsden is said to have originated the first official khaki uniform. The cotton twill uniform wore well, did not show dirt as easily as white, and was not as easy a target as white, red, or black.

There is a mention in Byron Farewell’s “Armies of the Raj” that khaki-coloured uniforms were used officially for the first time during the Abyssinian campaign of 1867-68, when Indian troops set out under the command of General Sir Robert Napier to release some British captives and to "persuade the Abyssinian King, Theodore, forcibly if necessary, to mend his ways".

All British troops in India ultimately adopted khaki in 1885 in preference to the previously used white as the tropical colour. But even before that, Khaki had already become the symbol of British colonial power when with the enactment of the country’s criminal laws and especially the Indian Police Act in 1861, it became the standardised colour for the uniform of all the police forces through the length and breadth of the British administered territories – represented as the strong arm of the ruling power. That khaki was already in use for sepoys and kotwals under the existing principalities may also have contributed to this move.

Soon in the African continent the Boers too used khaki clothing as camouflage in the First Boer War, and in the Second Boer War the British did as well. Then during the Spanish American War in 1898 the United States Army adopted khaki. By World War I, the military added a green to cutch creating an olive-drab greenish tan or sand colour – so that soldiers would not standout against the surroundings of the European theatre. Khaki has since become de rigueur for military uniforms of militaries the world over, as well as for police forces of many South Asian countries, as also for American states and counties too.

Spread to civilian clothing, where ‘khakis’ since the 1950s has meant tan cotton twill trousers, nowadays khaki is a standard color for semi-formal dress pants. Although ‘khaki’ is also incorrectly used to describe a green colour similar to Asparagus or Pale Sea Green – especially by the linen/textile/lingerie industries, civilian khakis today come in all ranges of colours, and the term seems to refer more to the particular design or cut of the trousers.

July 10, 2006: 950 words: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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