The kōlam (plural: kōlaṅkaḷ) is an auspicious threshold design, a geometric pattern applied to the entry way to a home or temple at the start of the day, just before sunrise. Kōlam design is practiced throughout southern India. In general there are two types of kōlams: one type, known as kampi kōlam uses snake-like lines that curve around but do not intersect with dots (puḷḷi) that are evenly spaced in grids, rather than weave between the dots, the other main style connects the dots, usually in radiating symmetrical patterns.
Kōlam designs and styles vary by region across south India, as well as by the artist’s neighborhood, village, and caste [2, 3]. Basic kōlam designs include rings, knots, and labyrinth-like patterns . For example, paṭi kōlams made by brahmins from east coast of Tamil Nadu typically feature a central square shape . The art and style of kōlams are passed down, from grandmother, mother, or aunt to their daughters. Kōlams mark and guard the space between the public sphere and private homes or ritually pure sacred space in a temple context (see Nagarajan: 88). These decorative patterns also serve to welcome guests and prosperity into the home. In the morning before sunrise, usually the woman or a girl of the household sweeps and cleans the entryway by splashing it with water. Using small pinches of white powder, she applies evenly spaced dots on the ground, a common pattern for beginners is a four by four grid. Next, she draws a line that twists around and through the grids in a symmetrical geometric pattern. The line wraps around the dots but does not go back over a line that has already been poured into place. In general, kōlam designs do not typically include branching or angles, in favor of complex twists and curves. The powder is cupped at the top of the palm and poured out of the hand’s crease between the bent index finger and along the side of the thumb. While appearing easy to an onlooker, the practice of releasing the power at an even rate and a steady hand to draw a straight, smooth line is achieved only with considerable experience and confidence. Nonetheless, young girls who spend time practicing the various techniques for evenly pouring powder and marking dots with correct spacing may be given the opportunity to make their first kōlam as early as 6 years old. The powder used can be ground chalk or rice flour; the latter is meant as an offering to birds and insects that carry it away over the course of the day. In addition to the typical kōlam at the entrance of a house, these patterns can also be used to decorate the interior of the house, especially in a puja room. For people living in urban areas or apartment buildings, the women in the building share the responsibilities of daily kōlams at the building entrance by dividing up the calendar into rotations, including prestigious claims on holiday kōlams. Similarly for a temple, women in the community who are known for their particularly beautiful designs are recruited and also have claim to decorating the temple grounds for special holidays and events. For special occasions, the white powder can be mixed with colors for extra vibrant effect. In contrast, kōlams are not made during funeral rites, so a house without a kōlam at its threshold may indicate that there has been a death in the family.
During holidays such as the South Indian harvest festival Poṅkal, kōlams are embellished with the brightly colored chalk powders. In addition to Poṅkal, kōlams are also a highlight on Deepavali (tipāvaḷi) and Karthigai deepam (kārttikai tīpam). For large chariot festivals during which a temple deity is brought out of the temple complex and pulled through the town streets, women draw enormous white kōlams to decorate the streets through which the procession will travel. Sometimes kōlams are additionally adorned with double lines, or small mounds of cow dung with blossomed pumpkin flowers gently pressed into the centers. Kōlams can be drawn for both male and female deities. Significantly, kōlams are also not exclusive to Tamil Hindus. Tamil Christians also practice drawing kōlams, participate in competitions, and decorate their own sacred shrines and places of worship with these threshold designs.
In addition to the inherited knowledge of kōlam designs passed down within a household, women also collect ideas and inspiration by viewing the kōlams drawn around their neighborhoods, as well as from widely available and inexpensive printed booklets of designs. Using all of this information, girls and women can invent new, unique variations for themselves. They experiment and practice new ideas in notebooks or, again, referencing kōlam design leaflets. However, she will leave the papers and notes behind to draw the actual threshold kōlam from memory . In this singular daily performance amendments and occasionally mistakes transform the last version seen on paper into the living, actualized blessing of the entrance.
The kōlam is an exercise in artistry and concentration. Kōlams are also valued for the mathematical concepts that they demonstrate, ranging from spatial reasoning to fractals and knot theory (see Thirumurthy & Simic-Muller, Ascher). This is one reason why kōlams are practiced in school and teenage girls are especially encouraged to participate in very competitive kōlam contests.
Daily applied kōlams are entirely temporary. No effort is made to preserve or avoid disturbing the designs once they have been poured out. On the other hand, there are a number of “short cuts” available for applying kōlams in homes and temples, including adhesive decals, tracing templates, and metal pans with punctured holes through which kōlam designs can be tapped onto the floor in single or repeating patterns. Kōlam designs are sometimes applied in paint to interior floors. For example, in the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, elaborate kōlams are painted in white with some pops of color onto the floors of the expansive hallways that surround the famous Golden Lotus Tank. Kōlam templates and booklets of patterns are commonly available in print and online. Video tutorials and blogs thrive on Youtube and other social media.
Rangoli is another type of artistic floor drawing practiced in the northern parts of South Asia to bring blessings to a household. These colorful shapes are not bound to the same type of symmetry that is typical of kolam patterns, but do share images of flowers and leaves, parrots and peacocks, paisley and other softly curving shapes.
Overall, the aesthetic and ritual of kōlams are at once methodical, productive, dynamic, and the individual expression of the early-rising artist.
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