Kolam designs | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Kolam designs

As the jubilant rituals of Thaipongal are gaining momentum, the art of creating kolam designs is fast becoming a lost skill among the younger generations. Thaipongal is a harvest celebration, popular among all Tamil communities, predominantly in the Hindu religion. The kolam or rangoli as it is known in India is a trademark of many Hindu homes. Its concept can be traced back to many centuries, as it began as a humble housewife’s task to adorn the main entrance of the house with vibrant expression.

In Tamil culture (as also found within many Asian cultures) the family and home take centre place. Kolam designs are laid out early in the morning almost coinciding with sunrise, as the radiant sun plays a pivotal role in yielding a good harvest. Rising early is the practice of a diligent wife, who creates these designs aided by her sisters and other young women. Using grains of rice and other pulses the kolam also serves to feed ants and birds, who are enticed to the garden, and whose presence is enjoyed by children.

The lively chirping of birds is a refreshing sound in the morning and would enhance the mood for the festive celebrations. Teenage girls also make it a team affair in creating these striking patterns, as I have witnessed on my visits to Jaffna. The bevy of beautiful girls with long black hair would slow down young men on their bicycles, as they glanced with earnest.

As with all rituals, today urbanisation has impressed on us a digitally dominated lifestyle where we attempt to somehow control time. We are all drawn into a vortex where we pride ourselves in being busy. Thus, in Sri Lanka the task of patiently designing a kolam is now done mainly in the villages of the Northern Province, with some exceptional homes in Colombo and other major cities. Perhaps it is one of those unique arts that can’t be ready made - bought in a supermarket and laid out.

The custom is also observed in other areas where Hindu communities live. But we can safely assume that this magnificent art, which requires much patience and a steady hand, is becoming obsolete in Colombo, as people begin to reside in high-rise apartments. I asked my friend Priya a devoted Hindu and she says, ‘Kolam or rangoli originated from India. Today we don’t have time with our daily work routines to sit and make these intricate designs. Yet there are a few older ladies who want to sustain this tradition. Even in the kovils it is not displayed commonly as before and is reserved for special days of religious significance". Just like Priya, there are hundreds of other young Hindu women in Colombo who have their daily office routines, and time is a valuable commodity. Even the traditional sweet dish of pongal (rice infused with ghee, green gram, raisins, nuts and sugar) is seeing a mild decline. As said before women are drawn into other home routines, and there is a new trend of buying this dish from outside, as one can witness in the Wellawatte area. But thankfully the custom of going to the kovil remains, and it is lovely to see families uniting in worship.

Rangoli designs are associated with a myth from India which says, that Andaal worshipped Lord Thirumaal and was married to him in the month of Margazhi. So during this month, unmarried girls get up before dawn and draw a rangoli to welcome and venerate god Thirumaal. Mention of rangoli creations are also found in Hindu mythology. In the epic romance captured in Ramayana at Sita’s jubilant wedding pavilion, there is reference to rangoli designs. Cultural appreciation of rangoli in the South originated in the era of the majestic Chola Rulers.

There are modern and traditional rangoli designs. The designs are usually inspired by nature, but they can also be expressed as abstract art. Shape, design and material can be influenced by regional traditions and the skill of the person laying the design. A square grid is common in North India as is a hexagonal grid the expression of South India; Onam rangolis are typically circular.

In North India, the colour is most often based on gypsum (chirodi), in the South India states rice flour and Onam rangolis are typically flower based, which enhance the doorway or entrance to a home.

The influence of widespread migration and integration of people within India can be seen by the way these styles are now freely adopted. It is a new trend to witness sawdust-based floating rangolis, freeform designs and exotic materials.

In Sri Lankan homes where the ritual is maintained amidst challenges, the designs are brought to life using coloured rice, dry flour, flower petals, turmeric, vermillion and coloured sand which is dyed and dried in advance.The patterns include the face of Hindu deities, peacock motifs and floral designs.

I have seen tourists getting excited at these designs, as they are awed by this unique art form and begin to photograph these magical moments. Even the serene homes in Jaffna are now shifting gears to a busy lifestyle and the kolam remains a fading art form. Many of these motifs are traditional and are handed down by generations. Kolam designs are considered a sign of prosperity. Thaipongal is a time for all Sri Lankans to embrace their cultural diversity and enjoy the celebration of a bountiful harvest.