In many sources, the better (or at least different) quality of chay (Oldenlandia umbellata) relative to madder (Galium sp.) is often mentioned. However, chay is less often found in textiles, and (in contrast to madder) seems not to have been exported - and therefore is a typical indicator of Indian provenance for ancient fabrics. But if chay was truly this superior to ordinary madder, why has madder always been the popular favorite?
The reason for this relative rarity, especially when compared to the fame of its dyeing qualities, may well be found in the possibility that chay was never cultivated as such as a crop, but harvested by specialised landless peasants.
Bancroft (after Roxburgh) talks of 'extensive cultivation' along the Malabar coast, but mentions also that only roots of calcium-rich near-sea plants are valuable.
As opposed to the plants on 'stiff clay', which would be worth next to nothing.
Sea-level sand beaches don't come up in my mind when I think of harvesting and agriculture, but maybe this is too black-and-white.
An interesting small text on this can be found in 'Madras versus America' (1866), in a part that discusses the plantation of American cotton by Arthur Lees in Tinnevelly (now Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu).
'An obstacle, however, arose to his own cultivation from the claims of the Chayroot renters. These men paid a considerable sum to Government for the right to dig up all the Chayroot (*) produced in the Tinnevelly district, whether on waste land, or on land occupied with dry cultivation. This right had been farmed out from time immemorial ; and accordingly in December, 1850, nearly a whole year after the com-
mencement of the Cotton culture, the Chayroot renters claimed the privilege of entering the fields under culture by Mr. Lees, and of their digging up the Chay-roots with a kind of spear about a foot and a half long. Mr. Lees of course resisted this claim, especially as the digging for the roots was injurious to the cultivation of American Cotton.
(*) A root from which a certain dye is extracted.
The Clayroot renters then demanded compensation. The matter was brought to the notice of the Court of Directors by the Manchester Commercial Association ; and the Directors instructed the Madras Government to relieve Mr. Lees from any demand in excess of the regular assessment ; and on the renewal of the Chayroot farms to restrict the renters to the uncultivated lands. The Madras Government, however, had already anticipated those orders, by cancelling the existing Chayroot farm, and by restricting the terms of future farms in such a way as to debar the renters from all lands under cultivation. The matter led to some further correspondence as to the propriety of levying an assessment on the lands producing Cotton, equal to what was levied on lands producing Chayroot. As, however, it subsequently appeared that Mr. Lees's experiment had proved a failure, the quantity obtained being insufficient to pay the cost of culture, no alteration was made in the assessment, and things remained as they were.
The text is not completely clear on the status of the 'Chayroot farms', but these may well be places for collecting and milling to powdered dyestuffs. The chayroot seems to have been collected from special places, rather than grown in fields as a cultured and domesticated plant itself.