Significance of KOLAMS

  • Article tells you the tradition of making Kolams in Tamil Nadu, the deeper significance behind making it and benefits.

Tamasomā jyotir gamaya. Source is Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.3.28)

This shloka literally means “from darkness lead me to light”.


Even as the first rays of the Sun start colouring the sky at the break of dawn, the streaks of the ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’ drawn outside innumerable homes in many parts of India, herald the arrival of light dispelling darkness. While it is a simple act of making a design usually with rice flour or chalk powder, outside one’s doorstep, drawing of ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’ has a very deep social, cultural and philosophical significance in the Indian way of life.


According to one of the stories found in the ‘Puranas’, it is believed that Goddess Lakshmi resides in homes that are clean, have clean entrances purified with cow-dung and decorated with beautiful ‘rangolis’. 


‘Rangoli’ is derived from Sanskrit and is known by different names across the country – ‘kolam’ in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, ‘muggu’ in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, ‘aripana’ in Bihar, ‘chowk pujan’ in Uttar Pradesh, ‘chaookpurana’ in Chattisgarh, ‘maandna’ in Rajasthan, ‘alpona’ in West Bengal and ‘muruja’, ‘jhoti’ or ‘chita’ in Odisha, to name a few. 'Sanskar bharati' in Maharashtra and 'sathiya' in Gujarat are among the different types of 'rangolis' drawn during auspicious occasions. 


Raangoli at village Lonar, Maharashtra. Made during Ganapati. Pic by S Nayyar.


These patterns are drawn using materials such as rice flour in powder or paste forms, powder colours, white rock powder, chalk powder and flower petals at the entrances of homes and within, where daily ‘puja’ or worship is done. They are also drawn in front of the ‘tulsi’ plant. The practice of drawing ‘kolams’ on or in front of cooking stoves in the kitchen, before starting the process of cooking, continues to this day in many households.


Different materials are used for making these patterns to mark different occasions. For instance, during the festival of Onam in Kerala, it is traditional to make ‘kolams’ with flower petals and these are called ‘pookalams’.

Left Alpona West Bengal. Right Maandna Rajasthan.

In Tamil Nadu, ‘kolams’ are an integral part of daily life and are drawn not only outside homes and temples, but also outside shops, commercial and corporate establishments. Patterns are created by either joining dots (called ‘pullis’ in Tamil) to form various designs or drawn freehand. Some very special and intricate ‘kolam’ designs are passed on from one generation to another.


During festivals, weddings and other family functions ladies of the family and the neighbourhood come together to make elaborate ‘kolam’ designs. Children usually pick up the tradition by observing and helping their elders. 

Why is ‘kolam’ such an important daily ritual?


It is believed that drawing ‘kolam’ outside the doorstep ushers in goodness and prosperity while also making the place look beautiful and welcoming. Before making the ‘kolam’, the lady of the house cleans the place in front of the house with water often mixed with some cow-dung. This helps purify the environment around the house.


Early morning Kolam at Tenkasi Tamil Nadu. Pic by S Nayyar.


Drawing these beautiful patterns every day symbolises the celebration of life, giving a positive start to the day. ‘Kolams’ are believed to help channelize positive energies into one’s homes and workplaces, while destroying negative energies at the same time. It has a cleansing and calming effect on the mind and body of the woman, who is then ready to face the rigours of the day ahead.


The ‘kolam’ is usually drawn using rice powder or paste enabling ants, little insects and birds to feed on it. This tradition is invariably an extension of the Indian ethos of oneness with nature fostering the well-being of all living entities – the very epitome of the principle of “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the whole world is one single family). Importantly, this is very well-entrenched in a simple ritual performed daily, making it a way of life.


Apart from inhaling the crisp and fresh morning air while stepping out to draw ‘kolams’, this activity has other health benefits as well. As women are constantly bending down and straightening up as they make these patterns, it helps strengthen their backs and avoid back pains. Interestingly in Tamil Nadu, there is a type of ‘kolam’ design called ‘sikku kolam’, wherein ‘sikku’ means knots. These designs are particularly useful in sharpening creativity and problem-solving skills as they involve making complicated patterns that appear symmetrical, when viewed from any direction.


Kolam. Pic by Author.  


Vital element in every celebration


Special designs are drawn to celebrate festivals and other important days and events. A distinct pattern of ‘kolam’ called ‘hridaya kamalam’ is believed to represent Goddess Lakshmi and is not drawn at the entrances or outside homes. It is drawn only at the place of worship inside homes or in front of the ‘tulsi’ plant.


During Krishna Janmashtami, tiny footprints symbolising the arrival of Lord Krishna are drawn from the entrances and thresholds leading up to the place where puja is done inside the homes. Similarly, footprints are also drawn to welcome Goddess Lakshmi for ‘Lakshmi Puja’, which is celebrated during Deepavali. 


Large, elaborate patterns are made for weddings and other key functions. Often, professional ‘kolam’ artistes are entrusted with creating these designs for such important events.


Kolam at Mylapore Festival January 2019. Pic by Author. 


The month of ‘Margazhi’ (mid-December to mid-January) is considered particularly auspicious in Tamil Nadu and ‘kolam’ making is an integral aspect of the celebrations during this month. As part of the Mylapore Festival held annually in Chennai, one of the approach roads to the famous Kapaleeswarar Temple at Mylapore, transforms into a grand canvas for ‘kolam’ artistes, who display their expertise in the art and compete with each other. What started as a simple neighbourhood ‘kolam’ contest around the mid-1990s, is now a major cultural event attracting huge crowds, including several visitors from other countries. People from different walks of life participate in this competition to create exquisite ‘kolam’ designs on the street, over a 2-day period.


Signifying positive energies


Essentially the harbingers of positive energies, ‘kolams’ symbolise the auspicious aspects of life. In the event of a death in the family, the ‘kolam’ is not drawn during the period of mourning. Even during annual ‘shraadham’ rituals for ancestors, the ‘kolam’ is drawn only when these rituals are completed.


In case of special ‘pujas’ and rituals, including those that involve ‘tantra’, specific patterns of ‘kolams’ are made and following the exact measurements and dimensions are extremely important forming the basis for conducting the ritual. ‘Bhagavathy Sevai’, for instance, based on tantric rituals and primarily conducted in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, involves drawing of a special ‘kolam’ called ‘padmam’, on which Goddess Durga is invoked. Two smaller patterns are drawn on either side of the ‘padmam’ – one for Lord Ganesha and the other for the ‘kula devata’ or family deity. Rice powder, turmeric powder and kumkum powder (‘rakta choornam’) are used for creating these patterns.


Kolam. Pic by Author.


Even as they contribute to aesthetics around the house in general, ‘kolams’ or ‘rangolis’ have an enormous spiritual import. These patterns celebrate new beginnings, bring about a sense of symmetry and harmony in our day-to-day lives and spread positive energies around our homes. In many ways, the unassuming ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’ is truly a manifestation of the divine in everyday places.

To hear a Podcast by Nandini Srinivasan titled - Kolam- Reconnecting the Dots of this Sacred Art  


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