FOLK HERITAGE

“KOLAM”-ART FROM SOUTH INDIA

A PERFECT AMALGAMATION OF MATH, MYTH AND RICE FLOUR

Kolam, is an age-old art form originated in Tamil Nadu, which later spread to other parts of South India (Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala). It became an integral part of South Indian culture which is still followed on daily basis by the women of household who is considered as Annapoorna or the nourisher of the family. It is similar to “Rangoli“, which we discussed in our previous post. But, unlike Rangoli, Kolam is a symmetrical design often drawn around grid patterns of dots on the floor with rice flour.

Kolam is also known as Muggu in Telugu or Tharai Aalangaram in Tamil. A beautiful kolam is drawn on the house entrance everyday before the very first rays of sunlight stream the city roads. During festivals or any other special occasions, more complex kolams are drawn and colors are added. Some of them are masterpieces. On a daily basis only rice flour or rice paste and turmeric is used.

The kolam patterns are often passed on from generation to generation, like from a mother to her daughter. Some women maintain Kolam books with their own collection of intricate designs, these books carry a bit of history. Women are so skilled that these patterns are drawn by bare fingers, really quickly barely making any mistakes and also in the right size and proportion as per the space available.

Kolam in front of the House during House warming in Tamil Nadu

KOLAM IS A “MORNING RITUAL”

Kolams or muggu or muggulu are considered auspicious and believed to bring prosperity to the house. In south Indian households, each morning before sunrise, women swept clean the front entrance and wash it with water. This removes the leftover kolam from the previous day, dirt etc and gives a clean flat surface for kolam.

Generally Kolams are drawn when the floor is still damp because damp floor holds the design for longer time. Typical rice flour can be replaced by chalk, chalk powder or white stone powder. In some cultures, cow dung is used to daub the surface before kolam making. Cow dung has antiseptic properties and is always considered good in Hindu religion.

Rice flour serves as a food for birds, ants and other insects, thus, kolam signifies a harmonious relationship between human and environment (giving food to others is a form of charity). It signifies good luck by welcoming Maa Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity to the home. Drawing kolam on the floor is a tribute to Bhudevi (the Earth Goddess). Overall, Kolam can be seen as a unique form of pictorial prayer, an offering to both gods and nature.

The month of Margazhi/Margasira is very special and eagerly awaited by young women to showcase their kolam skills. The story behind is that of  Andaal  (human incarnation of Goddess Bhudevi), who worshipped Lord Krishna and was married to him in the month of Margazhi. During this month, unmarried girls get up before dawn and draw a rangoli to welcome the Lord Krishna.

Women drawing a new kolam design on the pavement outside the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai

TYPES OF KOLAM

Symmetry is the key factor in the mind of the kolam artist while drawing kolam. Symmetry denotes the universal balance of nature or the Hindu aspect of Shiva-Shakti. The designs can be simple or complicated depending on the occasion. Some popular types of kolam includes:

IDUKKU PULLI KOLAM:

It involves drawing a line looped around a collection of dots (pullis) place on a plane such that all line orbits are closed, all dots are encircled and no two lines can overlap over a finite length.

SIKKU KOLAM OR MELIKA MUGGULU:

A ‘knot’ or ‘twisted’ kolam in front of a house in Tamil Nadu during housewarming. It is also called as Kambi/Neli kolam as the lines loop around the dots forming a design. The main feature of sikku kolam is that the viewer cannot determine the start and the end point of the kolam design. It appears as if the pattern continues in an infinity loop pattern.

PADI KOLAM:

Kolam with lines is the most commonly drawn in various parts of India, Southern India. They start with a square pattern at the centre.

KANYA KOLAM:

Similar to padi kolam, but they are drawn with patterns other than a square usually. 

CHUKKALA LENI:

It is a free hand style of koli which looks like rangoli without dots and often filled with colors.

It is said that kolam must contain complete lines and closed patterns so as to prevent evil spirits from getting inside the design, and eventually inside the house. The kolam, is sometimes marked with “Kaavi”,the bright red border to prevent evil and undesirable elements from entering the homes. The patterns or motifs drawn in Kolam are derived from philosophical and religious beliefs. Mathematics and mythology can be seen beautifully mingled in a traditional design of kolam.

Traditional kolam made with rice flour and kaavi borders for a house function at Tamilnadu,India.

Popular kolam motifs may include:

  • Fish, birds, and other animal images.
  • The sun, moon and other zodiac symbols
  • A downward pointing triangle representing woman
  • An upward pointing triangle representing man
  • A circle represents nature
  • A square represents culture
  • A lotus represents the womb.
  • A pentagram represents Venus and the five elements
  • Sahasradala padmam or “thousand-petalled lotus”, symbol of purity and blossom.

Welcome phrases, festive wishes like happy new year etc are also seen in Kolam designs. The art is really popular and modern kolam artists are experimenting with new designs making kolam an essential part of South India’s contemporary art.

KOLAM AND RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Kolam and Rangoli making are mentioned in ancient Puranic texts of Hindus. One of the story is from the time of Amrit-Manthan. While the Devats and the Asuras were churning Ksheersagar (Sacred ocean of Milk) for Amirt (nectar), many things started to came out of the ocean. Goddess Lakshmi too came out of that ocean and asked Lord Vishnu for an abode for her to reside. The Lord said that she could reside in houses where the entrances are sprinkled with cow dung water and decorated with kolams. Thus kolam became a means to invite Lakshmi into the houses.

The kolam’s of Pongal festival in Attur town, Salem district, Tamil Nadu

Another story comes from Chitra Lakshana (the earliest book on Indian paintings), once a king and his kingdom suffered a great sorrow at the death of the high priest’s son. Everybody prayed to Lord Brahma for priest son’s life. Brahma answered and asked the king to paint a portrait of the boy on the floor so that he could put life into it. That was the first floor painting which came to life. Rice flour and flowers used were then considered as an offerings to God in the form of floor painting.

Kolam serves as an offering to the deity or Bhudevi. In some cases the creation of the kolam follows the ancient Indian architectural definitions i.e is the Stapathya kala where one follows the defined set of parameters.

IT’S DIFFERENT FROM “RANGOLI”

Kolam is a floor art just like Rangoli but both are different art forms. Kolams are usually made with dry rice flour (kolapodi) or dilute rice paste, whereas, Rangoli is made from limestone or chalk powder, colored sand, colored powdered quartz, brick powder and flowers.

Rangolis are extremely colorful and often drawn in free hand designs. But a South Indian Kolam is all about symmetry, precision, and complexity. Only white color is used in typical kolam design Some kolam patterns are so complex as viewers found it difficult and enjoyable to figure out the beginning and end of kolam.

KOLAM IS MATHEMATICAL !

Yes, you heard that right. Kolam is not just a random art but follows the complex concepts of mathematics like symmetry and permutation. Every dot and curve is calculated and a specific technique is followed in drizzling the right amount of flour on the floor. Kolam designs offer scope for intricacy, complexity and creativity of high order.

Kolam patterns are a matter of research for mathematicians and algorithms have been developed for generating kolam designs with different patterns. Kolams are used in research and development of computational anthropology. Kolams are also used to draw simple representations of complex protein structures. The mathematical properties of kolams are used in the computer science and picture-drawing computer software.

Kolams come in a variety of styles (which the computer scientists call as “kolam families”). Since many begin with a grid of dots, this serves as the skeletal structure for the kolam.  Lines are drawn, connecting the dots or around them, forming a single, continuous curve. often depicting the never-ending cycle of birth, fertility, death, continuity and eternity.

Traditional kolam, or floor decoration made with rice powder or paste. Colaba, Mumbai, India

POPULARITY OF KOLAMS

Kolams are such a beautiful part of India’s cultural heritage. It is delightful to see how our South Indian community and even in some parts of Goa and Maharashtra, Kolams are practised daily and the art is well preserved. Even the Tamil residing worldwide, introduced the practice of kolam in Asian countries like  Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand

I am not from South India, but simply obsessed with kolams. Currently learning as a beginner on my own. Here is the video I find useful :

VIDEO BY: BEGINNERS SIKKU KOLAM 5 X 1 DOTS/Melika muggulu with dots/5 Pulli kolam/Dhanurmasam muggulu/Muggulu by VINMEEN RANGOLI

RELATED: RANGOLI- A COLORFUL TALE FROM INDIA

IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia commons

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