Creativity - Painted prayers
by P Venkatesh
As you step into any South Indian house, your eyes are sure to be greeted by the attractive sight of a bright, white-coloured geometrical design drawn on the ground near the threshold. The pleasing and intricate design drawn using rice flour is known as kolam.
It may look simple, but kolam reflects a deep spiritual philosophy. Essentially, kolam is meant to welcome the guests by bringing a smile on their lips and cheerfulness in their hearts as they enter the house. This embodies the noble thought of ‘athiti devo bhava’ (the guest is God). Not only that, the rice flour used in kolam is a source of food for insects and birds. It is said that ants are pleased when they get their daily food easily through kolam, and they bless the residents of the house. This reveals the benevolent spirit of sharing among human beings, and depicts the attitude of ‘sarve bhavantu sukhina’ (may all creatures co-exist happily).
Not just a beautiful form, kolam is also symbolic of a life filled with auspiciousness. It is considered an invitation to Mother Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to shower prosperity on the house. The white colour of the kolam signifies purity and sanctity of the house. Often, red ‘kaavi’ (brick powder) lines are drawn around the white lines. These red lines are supposed to prevent negative energy from invading the house, thereby protecting the residents of the house. Being a symmetrical pattern made up of dots connected with lines, kolam is also like a yantra that continuously taps positive energy from the cosmos, thus bringing happiness to the residents.
In the Tamil calendar, the month of Margazhi (mid December to mid January) is considered highly auspicious for drawing kolams. It is said that one year for humans is equivalent to one day for the Divine, and the month of Margazhi represents the twilight hours for the gods. So, kolams are considered as ‘painted prayers’ to wake up and invoke the blessings of those gods.
Women get up before sunrise, and decorate the ground with detailed and elegant kolams. Such is their devotion that care is taken not to repeat the same design again during the entire month. At the centre of the kolam, they keep a ball of cow dung holding a yellow pumpkin flower – an offering to the Almighty and a symbol of fertility.
While the kolam designs in households range in size from small to medium, the designs in temples are usually large and elaborate. This is a highly refined art. To start with, rice flour powder is taken between the thumb and forefinger, and a grid of ‘pullis’ (dots) is drawn. Then, a single continuous ‘kambi’ (line or curve) is drawn starting from one dot, running around other dots, and finally ending at the initial dot. In this process, the interesting loops that form around the dots make up the desired design. These dots stand for the challenges in life, the lines represent how we tackle these challenges, and the kolam itself symbolises the recurring life cycle.
Drawing kolam involves the highest mathematical ability. A girl learning this art not only has to visualise the geometry in her mind, but also needs to replicate it on the ground. The design should be in the exact proportion to the space available. This helps develop a sharp mind, and improves reasoning and intuitive skills. No wonder such girls excel in academics. Interestingly, kolam is also a tradition that is passed down over several generations amongst the women of the family. The daughter of the house is taught a new kolam design every day. This is so because the design lasts only for a day and has to be drawn afresh every morning. This way a mother initiates her daughter into a lifelong spiritual practice, enshrining the lessons of discipline and aesthetics, expecting her to carry on with this tradition in her prospective husband’s house.
The benefits of drawing kolam are immense. In villages, the floor is cleaned with water mixed with cow dung before drawing the kolam. Cow dung has excellent anti-bacterial and insect-repellent properties, which keeps the house free from diseases. Dawn is the best time for drawing kolam due to the presence of pure air that relaxes the mind and energises the body. As the womenfolk frequently bend and rise, and twist their arms and legs in order to draw the intricate figures, this not only unconsciously massages their digestive and reproductive organs, but also strengthens their joints and spine, thus exercising the whole body.
As the chakras connect the physical body with the energy body, kolams too act as divine devices that subtly link the interior (microcosm) of the house with the exterior (macrocosm). Indeed, they represent the mystical pictorial language by which the earth converses with heaven. Blessed are the women who practise this art, and the house whose threshold is graced by a resplendent kolam.
The author is a joyful creator of words, visuals and sounds, playing roles of a writer, producer and media consultant.
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