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Hiding in plain sight; Rangoli, Kolam designs and what they mean

Millions of women from different communities in South India practice this art form every day.

Every day, my mother religiously performed a ritual. Rain or shine, she never skipped this ritual even for a day. Every day, she drew enchanting kolam patterns using rice flour.

Here is an example of a typical kolam design in front of the house.

Image Credits: Arulraja (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
On special occasions, the white kolam designs were made with wet rice flour paste accompanied by thick strips of earth colored borders made with red sand mixed with water.

My mother is proud of her kolam design skills. She is not alone. It seems no self-respecting South Indian woman will tolerate anyone questioning her ability to conjure up kolam designs at will.

Millions of women from different communities in South India practice this art form every day.

For over 38 years, I considered Kolam to be just another ritual among the long list of rituals Indian women seem to follow. However, when I decided to dig deeper to understand the significance of kolam designs, I was surprised at what I discovered.

The threshold is a key concept in Tamilian culture. Even historical Tamil literature such as the Sangam literature (Tamil literature in the period spanning 300BC to 300 CE) is divided into the akam (inner field) and the puram (outer field).

That’s not all.

In one of Nammalvar’s (the fifth among the 12 Alwar saints who espoused Vaishnavism) hymns, the God in the poem is the God of the threshold. Of course, every newly married bride formally becomes a part of the household when she steps overs the threshold.

Should we then conclude that kolam designs are a celebration of the threshold?

Different interpretations of the significance of kolam designs

Here are a few explanations I came across in my quest to unearth the real significance of the kolam ritual.

The most common understanding has been that the idea of using rice flour is to provide food to ants, insects and small birds.

If that is the case, what’s stopping men from participating in this noble deed?

While I did not find an answer, a common sense reasoning is that women have traditionally carried the burden of maintaining the home and the kolam ritual automatically became a part of the woman’s domain.

That’s also a reason why my mother and my aunts believe that women see it as a key ritual that helps them improve their concentration and patience, two key components needed to run a household!

Here is another interpretation recorded in Lance Nelson’s study of Kolam.

“Bhumi Devi [earth goddess] is our mother. She is everyone’s source of existence. Nothing would exist without her. The entire world depends on her for sustenance and life. So, we draw the kolam first to remind ourselves of her. All day we walk on Bhumi Devi. All night we sleep on her. We spit on her. We poke her. We burden her. We do everything on her. We expect her to bear us and all the activities we do on her with endless patience. That is why we do the kolam.”

According to Devdutt Pattnaik, author and mythologist –

“A downward pointing triangle represented woman; an upward pointing triangle represented man. A circle represented nature while a square represented culture. A lotus represented the womb. A pentagram represented Venus and the five elements.”

Kolams connects the dots in more than one way.

Cultural practices are common across the length and breadth of India. They also transcend regions.

The concept of Kolam is definitely not unique to Tamil speaking community in India. For example, in the Telugu language, it is called ‘Muggulu’, and it’s known as ‘Rangoli’ in the Kannada language.

But the idea of drawing patterns on the ground transcends India and can be found in other cultures as well!

Anil Menon, a computer scientist, and a speculative novelist has compiled findings from his research on similar practices among cultures separated by oceans. Here are some tidbits from Menon’s work.

British anthropologist, John Layard, found that the patterns drawn on the sand by the tribal population of Malekula (an island that’s a part of The Republic of Vanuatu, situated 1000 miles east of Australia) are similar to the kolam patterns popular in Tamil Nadu!

Here is the proof.

Image credits: Hannah Teale on Pinterest

There is also a possibility that kolam designs were an early form of pictorial language!

Dr Gift Siromani, through his path-breaking work, has proved that it is possible to create any kolam pattern using a combination of strokes.

Rituals and cultural practices are to be cherished

I did not think much of the kolam designs my mom drew every day. But a sudden spark of curiosity led me to unexpected findings and the joy of discovering human beings are connected to each other in more ways than we can imagine.

Physical boundaries, cultural differences, and racial definitions are just imaginary barriers we have erected over a period of time. Our lives are always connected just like the dots of the kolam my mom draws.

By Srinivas Krishnaswamy

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