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Kolams

The following article is part of a book on 'Kolams' being prepared for the Tamil Heritage Centre book collection, to be published by the Auroville Press. A team of Aurovilians is working on this collection in order to give a glimpse of the richness and diversity of the Tamil culture that so gracefully accepts Auroville in its midst.
The 'kolam' is a symbol of an open heart and an auspicious welcoming. Its colourful, devotional presence in the villages in the Auroville area is a well appreciated and respected feature, and we're happy to share some of its touch with you through this page..

From heart to hearth

Each day before the sun rises, millions of women in south India say silent prayers as they sprinkle their hearths with rice powder or chalk to make kolams and invite the divine to grace their homes. The kolam -an ancient Dravidian geometrical motif - combines form, movement and colour to announce each new day. In Tamil, the word kolam implies beauty, form and play; it is a quiet ritual full of grace to make the home a sacred space.
Women have drawn kolams before the entrances to their homes for centuries. Kolams may be linked to the earth, the stars or special festivities, but they are first and foremost a conscious offering to Mother Earth. They are prayers for prosperity, joy, wisdom, good health, and friendship. Their pretty patterns make villages and towns more festive, joyful, and devotional.

Daily ritual

Just before daylight, a village woman prepares the ground before the entrance of her house. After the day's initial tasks are done, she sweeps the front porch area with a broomstick made of coconut fronds. The sound of her broomstick striking the earth resonates with those of other women who are also sweeping their thresholds. Soon there is an orchestra of brooms signaling to those still in bed that morning is coming and that it is nearly time to rise.
After sweeping, she prepares her earth canvas by first coating the ground with a mixture of water and cow dung, which has been chosen for its purification value. Then, with deft and nimble fingers, she first lays out a regular pattern of dots with white powder. By letting the powder run smoothly between thumb and forefingers as if she were pouring dry water, she composes a continuous line, which turns and twists around the initial dots. Some women can draw up to four lines at once, as the powder slips through poised fingers. Sometimes a woman knows a pattern by heart, and sometimes she will create a pattern that is entirely new and unique. Each type of design has a name and a symbolic meaning. On festival days, kolams are particularly large and magnificent.

Painted prayers

Crossing a threshold, or vayipati in Tamil, is a conscious event. Kolams link the private realm to communal life, hospitality to guests and passersby, the personal and familial to the divine. In this way, more than a transient art, they are a conscious science. They are a subtle bridge between the intimate home and the vast and challenging world beyond. In ancient times, wandering sadhus would enter a village with kolams gracing the thresholds of village homes and know something of the lives of the inhabitants of each house. Abundance, hardship, aspirations were written on the earth with a few lines and dots or the absence of them.

Essential ingredients

Until recent times, kolams were most often drawn with coarse rice flower, thus serving as a conscious offering to nature's creatures. Rice flower is seen as an offering to Lakshmi, the goddess of rice. In south India, where wealth is measured in terms of rice fields, Lakshmi plays an essential caretaker role to assure the family's continued existence and survival. The goddess has the power to attract wealth and prosperity and to prevent poverty from entering the home.

Today, especially where rice is expensive, kolams are made of powered limestone, red soil or chalk. In some regions salt, turmeric powder, flowers, rocks, stones and sawdust are also used. Some women cannot resist the more colourful store-bought artificial chalk power tints and the technicolour world of magentas, emerald greens, turquoise and cobalt blues. Plastic sticker kolams are also used and herald city life and a different set of priorities for a woman's time..

Infinite patterns

Myriad kolam designs exist, - to mention just a few:

  • Nalvaravu, or welcoming kolams, say that a home is open to visitors and friends. They are especially used to welcome wedding guests for the most important event of a woman's life.

  • Thottil Kolams, or cradle kolams, are created for the naming ceremony of a newborn child. The cradle kolam is drawn and paddy is spread in the middle of the kolam. A song is then sung praying for the health and long life of the child.

  • Circle kolams originally signified water and were often associated with the abode of gods. Today they represent a recipient for the favourite goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, to manifest her abundance and bring health and prosperity to the family.

  • Snake kolams originally evoked the spiraling of life forces and the aspiration for an evolution in consciousness. Today they are often used to protect the house from thieves, evil spirits or unwanted visitors, as is the spiral in the Sumerian and Egyptian cultures. These kolams are a kind of curse catcher, or emotions screen to keep the household pure and serene. Negative spirits are not necessarily wandering outside the house. They may be seen as ill feelings in ourselves. Thus, there is a call to wake up and be purified in mind and thought.

Contact: marti@auroville.org.in 

*Kolams are known by different names in different parts of India. Hase in Karnataka, muggulu in Andrapradesh, chowkpurna in Uttar Pradesh, alpana in Bengal and Assam, and rangoli in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

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