On the periphery, a kolam (doodles on the entrance of Tamil houses) might look a simple traditional design done on the entry point of a Tamil household, but at the heart of it, kolams are interwoven with Tamil cultural and humane consciousness. The first brush with this part of the Tamil’s cultural identity happened in Swamimalai, a small town in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu and I was intrigued by the complexity of design and the ease with which the womenfolk drew them.
Kolams in different patterns and designs help to learn the abstract ideas of the philosophy that propels popular culture in the state. Made with powdered rice, kolams are a symbol of well-being and a welcome sign. Tamil people avoid adding synthetic colours to the rice powder as it also doubles up as food for insects. It is believed that a kolam is drawn to banish the evil: Mudevi, Lakshmi’s sister as per Hindu mythology. She is assumed to be a fore bringer of illness, poverty, laziness, sleep and bad luck. The absence of a kolam indicates that either the household does not practise Hinduism or an inauspicious has occurred in the household and Tamil people avoid entering a house if there is no kolam at the entrance. In that sense the kōlam can be seen as an underlying visual mapping of the auspiciousness and inauspiciousness; ritual purity and ritual pollution for Tamil households in the context of ritual space and time.
Before starting to make a kolam, the area is thoroughly washed as it considered auspicious in the Tamil culture and is thought to bring prosperity to homes. Drawn mostly while the surface is still damp so the design will hold better. An art form practised primarily by the womenfolk, kolam is equally popular in the other southern Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala as well as some parts of Goa and Maharashtra. Drawn every day just before the sun moves up the horizon, a kolam is a geometrical line drawing composed of curved loops, illustrated with the help of a grid pattern of dots. Over the centuries, the folklore has evolved to mandate that the lines and curves must be completed, symbolically preventing evil spirits entering the inside of the shapes and thus preventing from entering the house.
Decoration is not the only purpose of a kolam. Kolams are drawn in coarse rice flour, so that the ants would not have to walk too far for a meal. The powder also invites other small creatures as well as birds to eat it. It is also a way to welcome other beings into one’s home and everyday life: a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence and a simple step towards creating an ecological balance, a hot topic across the world.
Talking about patterns, a kolam is made of many designs that are derived from magical motifs and abstract designs blended with philosophic and religious motifs. Motifs may include birds, fish and other animal images to symbolise the unity of man and beast. The sun, the moon and other zodiac symbols were also used. The downward-pointing triangle represents a woman; an upward-pointing triangle represents a man. A circle represents nature while a square represents culture. A lotus represents the womb and a pentagram represents Venus and the five elements. For many, it is a matter of pride to be able to draw large patterns without lifting the hand off the floor.
“Kolams are just not an age-old tradition where women show their talent to create geometric designs with rice powder. It’s a fabric of India’s multi-dimensional culture, lifestyle, beliefs and practices. Its chemistry is so deep that even today people have got to know kolams only very superficially,” says Steve Borgia, Chennai-based heritage conservationist and Chairman & Managing Director of INDeco Leisure Hotels.
There are numerous interpretations of the ritual, symbolic and cultural significance of kolam all over Tamil Nadu. Lakshmi, a resident of Swamimalai, says, “We draw the kolam to honour, invite, welcome, host and express gratitude to particular gods and goddesses, including Bhudevi (representing the earth), Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity), Surya (Sun god representing good health and wisdom) and Ganesha (the elephant-headed god, known as the remover of obstacles). The kolam acts as a visual device to remember and ask for forgiveness for walking, stepping and burdening the earth.”
Over the years, kolam art has become a crucial part of South India’s contemporary art scene with many artists using the patterns and motifs in various crafts.
Text and images by Supriya Aggarwal
Originally published on Lonely Planet India.