Tamil Nadu’s iconic Kolam tradition involves creativity and mathematical skill

Kolam, in its traditional context, is said to be drawn to announce auspiciousness and that all-is-well in the household while its absence implies otherwise.

By Asha Balakrishnan

This Margazhi morning sent me into a state of nostalgia as I drew a simple ezhai kolam in my apartment corridor. It brought back all those fond times and tiny tales told to me by family elders during various functions where all women in the family used to get together and make beautiful patterns — a memory I hold close to my heart. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, kolam is a traditional practice that defines the culture in the form of a visual map made using the basic elements of design – dots and lines.

The art of kolam is as old as the Indus valley civilization and dates back to the Mahabharata. It is said that the Gopis drew this to drown their sorrows when their beloved Lord Krishna was away. While some historians believe that kolams were designed by shore dwellers, as the arrangement of stars helped them to venture into the sea. These dwellers replicated celestial designs of the constellations on the threshold of their homes. Prime constellations like Orion and Leo were said to represent Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti respectively.

Why do we put kolam?

Kolam, in its traditional context, is said to be drawn to announce auspiciousness and that all-is-well in the household while its absence implies otherwise. Drawing kolams signifies that Goddess Lakshmi is welcomed; while her sister Mudevi, who is believed to bring poverty, illness, laziness, and bad luck, is banished.

Simple kolam to Mahalakshmi kolam: How to draw kolam design?

Much before the break of dawn (Brahmamuhurtham), many women with a prayer on their lips, clean the door front by sprinkling water on mother earth and draw kolams with rice powder. The rice powder serves as food for the ants, insects, birds and is said to be equivalent to feeding thousands of living beings (Sahasra bhojanam). Also by bending and stretching while putting kolams, one exercises their body and absorbs the ozone in the atmosphere which is abundant in the wee hours.

So many more layered meanings, stories, and beliefs are credited to this creative art besides its traditional resonance when viewed through multiple lenses.

Significance of Kolam with dots

Some also say that the dots in the kolam represent the male and the lines denote the female. These also have a symbolic value in representing the basic energies of the universe. In kolams, no dot is left unconnected or hanging. Folklore has it that these closed patterns prevent evil forces from entering the homes.

Drawing a kolam involves 6 sets of mathematical skills — counting, identifying, measuring, designing, experimenting and explaining. To make a perfect kolam, one needs to keep a count of the dots, the vertices, arcs, and lines while forming those beautiful geometric patterns.

Whatever the history or story, this floor art which is a hand-me-down from one generation to another comes only with practice. The continuous fall of powder between the thumb and forefinger is an art that is a test to your creativity. Many patterns and designs are born on the spur of the moment with Mother Earth as a canvas.

Unique easy kolam designs for special occasions

Every celebration has a set of unique kolam designs ascribed to it. For special occasions, maa-kolams are created with wet rice flour. A small cloth is dipped into wet rice flour and; the thumb, forefinger and the middle finger act as a free-flowing ink pen nibs to form a smooth continuous evenly drawn semi-permanent kolam.

This week when my mother and aunt visited me, I sat down with them to perfect my kolam techniques, a follow-up on my wish of perfecting the maa-kolam this Margazhi. A few more weeks of practice and I think I’ll be close to making those beautiful patterns that will adorn my Instagram feed soon.

(Asha Balakrishnan is a storyteller by passion and freelance writer by profession. With varied interests ranging from organic gardening, reading, blogging, yoga, traveling, art and craft to much more, she keeps her creative mind engaged with activities that give her joy. Views expressed are personal.)

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