What color should a woman's skin be?

In SN 7.9, a brahmin is lamenting his ill luck, by comparison with the unencumbered freedom of the Buddha. The Buddha responds by agreeing point by point that he is, in fact, unencumbered by these things, at which the brahmin goes forth.

Most of these encumbrances are quite understandable: lost oxen, ruined crops, barns where the rats “dance merrily” (in Ven Bodhis’ delightful rendering), widowed daughters, and so on.

Inevitably, part of the complaint is about the wife, a shrew who wakes her husband with a kick, and is ugly to look at. In describing her, the text says this, with Ven Bodhi’s translation:

Piṅgalā tilakāhatā
A tawny wife, with pockmarked face

The problem here is the rendering of piṅgala. Obviously, this intersects with a variety of issues around gender, race, and body image, so we should take care to render it properly. In translating it as “tawny”, Ven Bodhi follows the main consensus of the dictionaries, both Pali and Sanskrit, which say it refers to a kind of brown, variously yellowish or reddish.

But surely we have a problem here. Not to state the obvious, but everyone in India has a skin tone in some shade of brown. If you google for images of “tawny skin”, most results are people from India, or with a similar complexion. The first image of a person with tawny skin I get is this:

Which, maybe it’s just me, but I’m finding it difficult to see this color as being so repulsive as to drive a man to monasticism.

As a further problem, in other passages we have three skin shades mentioned: kāla (black), sāma (brown, esp. dark brown), and maṅguracchavī. While the derivation of maṅgura is unclear, it is obviously in a spectrum with black and brown, and hence probably means “tawny, gold-colored”. These three terms are used as a general descriptor of the tones of skin colors, applied to either people in general, to a beautiful woman, or to the Bodhisatta. So piṅgala probably means something else.

Piṅgala is not used very often in the early texts. The apparently synonymous term piṅgiya is found in a few places, where it is a name of a brahmin (AN 5.194, AN 5.195, MN 30, Snp 5.17). This doesn’t tell us much, but it does suggest that it’s not a racial description as such.

In later texts such as Jatakas, it’s used as an epithet for eyes, thought to be ugly, and usually said to be red eyes. Again, this is not totally clear, since the more obvious lohitakkhi is also used.

If we look back at the roots of the word, it appears to be Primitive Indo-European, and I guess is cognate with “pink”. Maybe it means “pinkish, reddish” skin. Regardless, the fact that it harks back to very early human culture is significant; it must refer to something meaningful within that culture.

In Pali, the root verb is piṃsati, which has the sense “to adorn, form, embellish; orig. to prick, cut”. Related forms in Sanskrit, harking back to the Vedas, yield similar senses of “to adorn, decorate” or “prepare” (piś), or to “tinge, dye, paint” (piñj).

It is well established that the use of ochre—reddish or yellowish pigments—for human adornment and painting is the, or one of the, oldest forms of human culture.

This long predates the Indo-European culture. A typical use of such pigments was to smear on the face as decoration. But given that it is such a long-lasting and widespread phenomenon, it must have been used in a variety of ways. However, there is no ignoring the fact that the pigments look like blood, and their magical use was probably associated with blood magic, aka menstruation.

This is, of course, very long before the time of the Buddha, and I am not suggesting any direct connection. But what if the word referred not to a color as such, but to a blotchy complexion? Just as the earliest “adornment” or “preparation” (for a ritual) consisted of smearing a blotchy color on skin—whether it be ochre or, as the sense “cut” suggests, actual blood—this sense is carried on to mean blotchy skin or eyes. Such discolorations are often bloody or reddish in color, so would readily merge into the sense of “reddish” as a color.

If this is on the right track, then the brahmin’s wife—and presumably the other brahmins referred to as piṅgiya—were not distinguished by their “brown” skin, but by their “blotchy” skin.

It might seem a little odd, cruel even, to refer to people like this, but naming people after descriptive epithets is common in in EBTs. Even today a nickname like, say, “Freckles” might be more affectionate than cruel.

In the end, I’d suggest we render the line as:

Piṅgalā tilakāhatā
A wife with blotchy, pockmarked skin


I am the least useful member of Sutta Central where Pali translation and usage is concerned, so this subject really was completely over my head, like a zeppelin. Then, I saw Aishwarya Rai, and, well, all of a sudden, I’m Richard Gombrich. :slight_smile:

“Māliyo caturakkho ca,
piṅgiyo atha jambuko;
Ediso mayhaṃ parivāro,
tesaṃ kayirāhi bhojanaṃ”.

This, from JA 437 Pūtimaṃsa Jātaka , describes ( I think, per an article) a she-goat that flees her cave at the prospects of meeting some fierce dogs, one of whom is Pingiyo. So, might this dog be described as “spotted” or with a blotchy coat? This seems to fit your idea of piṅgiya as “blotchy.” It would seem odd to call a dog “Brown,” but to call a dog “Spot” makes perfect sense.


That would indeed work, thanks. Again, it seems odd to describe an Indian dog as just “brown”, but here, it seems, we have the origin of the modern default name for dogs: “Spot”!


Funny that your response appeared as I hit “reply,” with the same “Spot the dog” observation. I’d like to say “great minds think alike,” but there’s only one of us here with a great mind, and it ain’t me…

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Also, lions are referred as “pingiya”, where it may indeed mean tawny, but perhaps even here “mottled” applies.

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That is definitely an intriguing version and is a viable alternative but should we really be surprised that an Ancient Indian guy may call someone ‘tawny’?

The word ‘black’ is used in Colloquial Russian as a racial slur directed at Caucasians (like literal Caucasian, coming from the Caucasus). This is why the word ‘black’ was at least until recently and probably still is actually wa-a-a-a-a-ay less offensive for native Russian speakers than the Russian word negr meaning literally ‘Negro’. The latter word is actually hardly offensive at all since it doesn’t have all the historical connotations it acquired in the US, and therefore sometimes it may cause trouble for Russian people speaking to each other abroad. However, if you compare your average Chechen guy to your average black American guy, he sure doesn’t look that black to me. Should we start looking for cultural interpretations in the archaic Slavic culture, magical rituals, etc.?

I mean, this Bharadvaja dude was a Brahmin, and the Brahmins tended to have lighter skin, right? And we all know that darker skin was likely a sign of indigenous ancestry, i.e. low birth, with all vicious racist prejudice it might entail. So, if it is feasible for a Russian guy to call a white guy from Dagestan ‘black’, why is it unimaginable this cultural prejudice hasn’t leaked into the direct speech of a Brahmin in a Buddhist text for a comic effect? Especially if the whole text, despite its inclusion into the SN, seems to not only to teach but also, and maybe even primarily, to entertain?

Well really, I didn’t know this. Amazing what people can use to get their hate on!

I agree, it’s not unimaginable at all. But they’re not using the word “black”, or any word that has a well-defined color meaning. They’re using an obscure word, found only in very few early contexts, and which, as I have shown above, has roots that may just as well, or better, be read as meaning “blotchy”.

If it is a color, then it is the color of a lion or a dog, both of which are normally somewhat light brown or tan, which again seems hard to explain. If it is darker than your average brahmin skin color, the difference must have been very slight indeed. It seems reasonable enough to assume that the brahmins had somewhat lighter skin tone than an average Indian, and were often prejudiced against those of darker skin color, but this racism is usually expressed with the word kaṇha, which clearly means “black”, not by using a word that means “a shade of brown that might be slightly darker”.

But sure, at the end of the day it is not impossible, I just think it seems unlikely.

Well, yeah, you want to get into real trouble in Russia, call someone ‘black’. Use the word negr outside of the hipster community and the worst reaction you get is usually just shrugged shoulders. The Caucasian people also have a large racist vocabulary when talking about Russians. People are sadly inventive when it comes to things like this.

Oh, this changes the whole matter. Yeah, your argument sounds convincing, then. I think you could even possibly include this point into your essay, it adds a lot of substance to your initial reasoning. At least, if I had readit, I wouldn’t have argued for the opposite.

And blotchy-faced grumpy wife is certainly animage that can entertain your lay audience hearing to a story of conversion :slight_smile:

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The archetypal name for dogs in Russian is Sharik, which literally means ‘small ball’. So I wouldn’t expect much logic from dog-naming conventions :slight_smile: Anyway, a nice addition.


Okay, I have been lolling through this whole thread but -[quote=“Vstakan, post:9, topic:3562”]
‘small ball’

Could it also perhaps be referring to sun damage? For example, not those born with darker skin, but those who’ve allowed it to ‘brown’ in the sun, which is still of course, perhaps not much darker but may be obvious to the observer? And then all the negative connotations that come with that.

I’ve always been fascinated with this description of the ‘woman-jewel’:

not too dark nor too fair

MN 129

Which makes me feel like absolute whiteness can’t be the benchmark of beauty. Although in Asia recently, it seemed to me that the concept was the lighter the better.

Also, lions manes get more ‘tawny’ and darker as they age, but they also get more scarred and scratched up too. I dunno. More ideas to the pile.



awwww, when I was 7 years old or so I named my dog
’brownie’ because she was brown and little :smile:


Well, this thread has certainly gone in directions that are unexpected but not unwelcome! I’ll just leave this here.



@Linda, gosh, almost anything a 7 year old does like this is cute and perfect. My little sister Kate’s favorite book as a child was “Little Black, a Pony.” So a little dog named “Brownie” sounds perfect.

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interesting how widespread vitiligo is in Indians if it could have become synonymous with ugliness


an answer

Whom does it affect?

Vitiligo is said to affect about one per cent of the world’s population. Dermatologist Dr Satish Bhatia says, “In India, in particular, it ranges from 7-18 per cent of the population. In some cases there is a genetic link as high as 40 per cent.” Dr Anuya Manerkar says that it affects all races but more common in Indians and Mexicans. Prolonged poor dietary consumption in proteins and copper minerals are the reasons responsible. Also, women are more affected than men.

The Times of India

the rate could have been higher in the Buddha’s days


It’s actually in SN 7.10, just in case someone wants to find it.

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The main place I’m used to seeing the word “tawny” as a translation of piṅgala is in the later Tantra and Haṭhayoga texts, as in piṅgalā nāḍī, one or 3 main energetic channels, along with iḍā and suṣumnā, with iḍā and piṅgalā containing/representing moon and sun in the body. The color association of the two in Haṭhayoga is white for semen and red for menstrual blood, so I wonder if there’s enough association to foreground the redness of piṅgala rather than the brownness that is ubiquitous in South Asian skin tone, and then whether that is helpful in assessing this (somewhat uncomfortable given contemporary sexist culture) passage.

My guess mostly is that it suggests the brahmin’s preference for a wife with paler skin, which I think then as now had class/caste associations.