What color should a woman's skin be?

See below for exciting update!

In SN 7.10, 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.



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.

Bhante @sujato, it just occurs to me … a totally different hypothesis! :open_mouth:

I am reading Jātaka 240, the Mahāpiṅgala Jātaka, which is translated as “Great Yellow King” in English. The king is described like this:

With taxes and fines, and many mutilations and robberies, he crushed the folk as it were sugar-cane in a mill; be was cruel, fierce, ferocious. For other people he had not a grain of pity; at home he was harsh and implacable towards his wives, his sons and daughters, to his brahmin courtiers and the householders of the country. He was like a speck of dust that falls in the eye, like gravel in the broth, like a thorn sticking in the heel.

The brahmin’s wife of the OP is described:

a piṅgalā wife with pockmarked skin
to wake him up with a kick

What if piṅgala refers more to a character trait than a skin feature?

What both the king in the Jātaka and the brahmin’s wife show can be described as a “choleric” temperament, “choleric” being derived from the Greek word for bile (χολή cholḗ), which is associated with a yellow color. (And this is the first time I come across a Wikipedia article that exists in German, but not in English! They derive “choleric” back to Greek via Latin colericus, “of yellow bile”.)

Would that be a possible path?

Would the Jātaka then tell us about “the Great King Yellow-Bile”? And the brahmin had a “choleric wife with pockmarked skin”? Or even a “choleric wife with blotchy face”? (Who’s face isn’t blotchy when they have an outburst of rage? And tilakāhata is elsewhere translated “blotchy”, usually in connection with the manifestations of old age: with “limbs blotchy”.)

That would also somehow fit with the dictionary’s description of piṅgala referring to red eyes as a mark of ugliness, for ugliness is also associated with anger in the Suttas. And you might get red eyes when very angry.

See for example:

AN4.197:6.1 ff: “Take a female who is irritable and bad-tempered. … If she comes back to this state of existence after passing away, wherever she is reborn she’s ugly, unattractive, and bad-looking; …

I am sure that applies equally for other genders.



Interesting idea, but so far as I can see, it doesn’t apply generally to those whose name is piṅgala. So far as I can tell, in the Tipitaka it is used for:

  • a color of a line (compare the color of a nadi mentioned above)
  • a lion
  • a dog
  • a personal name
  • a kind of bird
  • a kind of fly

In Sanskrit there are even more meanings. The sense “blotchy” doesn’t seem to attested there, but notice that it is used of “yellow orpiment”:

Which is apparently used in India as a depilatory, and I can well imagine that it could cause blotchy skin. But it does suggest a connection, however slim, with the idea of something applied to the skin making it blotchy.

It seems hard to draw any common thread. The use for birds, lions, and dogs could well mean “spotted”, but it could also be a color.

One solid thing we know, however, is that as the description of a string, it must be a color. This is in Ja 546, where it is part of a list of colors of lines that appear in a magical gem. Most of these colors are well-known. Here, it would seem that “brown” would work well.

  • white (seta)
  • dark blue (nīla)
  • piṅgala
  • yellow (haliddā)
  • golden (sovaṇṇā)
  • silver (rajatā)
  • carmine (indagopakavaṇṇā, literally, “the color of ladybugs”, i.e. cochineal or carmine)
  • black (kāḷa)
  • madder (mañjeṭṭhā, etymologically “magenta”; one of the colors of the Buddhist flag, where the Sri Lankans regard it as “orange” and the Burmese as “fuschia”.)

Another context is perhaps more helpful. In Ja 481 Takkāriya we hear the story of a woman who is having an affair with a brahmin, who is described as with “yellow teeth sticking out” (piṅgalo nikkhantadāṭho. This is mistranslated in the English; the text later refers to kaḷārapiṅgala, confirming that it means “with projecting teeth”). Like our original context, it would seem that the description is not meant to be complementary. The odd thing is, the husband is said to also be the same (sopi tādisova). So we have two brahmin chaplains who are “with projecting yellow teeth”.

Plotting to get rid of his enemy, the cuckolded husband convince the king that he needed to perform a sacrifice, and it had to be, you guessed it, a brahmin with projecting yellow teeth. And he fingered the adulterer for the victim. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He crowed of his plot to his wife, who told her lover, who then fled the city, together with all other of similar features.

The day of the sacrifice dawns, and the king says, “well, we need a brahmin with yellow projecting teeth: where is he?”. You guessed it, there’s only one left in the city …

(It’s a digression, but this is a classic example of the “substitute sacrifice” described by Frazer. If it seems odd that a brahmin is sacrificed, consider that to do so was one of the most severe crimes imaginable. Why would it be a crime if people were not doing it? We always imagine that law books define what people did, whereas in fact they define what a small group of people think should not be done, while a possibly much larger group of people was doing that very thing. Sacrifice is about power, and a brahmin is powerful, so powerful that it required the very strongest of laws to prevent their sacrifice. Given that the brahmanical taboo on killing brahmins was carried over to the Buddhist taboo on killing arahants, it is not too much of a stretch, I think, to think that this taboo was a (hopefully preemptive) means of stopping folk from sacrificing arahants for power.)

So this tells us that piṅgala can be a tooth discoloration, one which is unpleasant yet not all that uncommon. Presumably it means “yellowish, blotchy” teeth. Our brahmins probably looked something like this:

I’m thinking that the same is probably true of the skin color.

On the whole, I tend to think that in such cases it is both the name of a color and of a “discolor”, referring to skin or teeth that have an uneven and unhealthy-looking yellow-brown color.

Indeed, and we also have the description of the cuckoo at Ja 269, whose delightful voice is contrasted with it’s being “discolored and spotty” (dubbaṇṇaṁ tilakāhataṁ). I dunno, I think it’s cute!

It would seem that piṅgala is a quasi-synonym to dubbaṇṇaṁ here, both described a “discoloration” that is blotchy or spotted.

Note, though, that “macula” with the sense of “blotchy” is a form of eye discoloration. In fact it seems close in sense to piṅgala.

True, but most of the contexts don’t seem to be about anger. Mostly they are clearly a physical attribute. But there is a parallel with the English word “jaundiced”, which means both “with yellow discoloration” and “envious, hostile”.

The Pali for “jaundice” as a disease is, however, different: paṇḍurogā.

Nonetheless, perhaps we should translate, “jaundiced and blotchy”? The problem with that is that “jaundiced” is usually used for the mental state not the color.

On the whole, I would tend to favor “sallow”. It conveys clearly that it is meant to be an unpleasant complexion, without racial connotations.


With this we are almost back to “choleric”. :smile: What makes the yellowish color in jaundice is bilirubin (Lat. “red bile”), when for example the excretion paths are blocked. Normally it’s excreted with the bile (and urine) and gives it its color.

So in German “gelbsüchtig” works well, as it doesn’t have the same mental connotations as its English counterpart.