Kolam is a beautiful, renewal performing and visual art that has a deep-rooted connection with nature and ecology. Vijaya Nagarajan in her writings on ritual practices in Hinduism has referred to kolam as the ritual of ‘embedded ecologies’. She states that rituals like kolam serve the purpose of binding social relationships between the natural and the cultural worlds (Nagarajan 2001, 2000, 1998a). According to her, this establishing of a sacred relationship with the natural world is facilitated by performing the act of danam (generosity). In kolam-making the main ingredient used is rice powder that serves as an offering to ants, insects, birds, bees, maggots and flies; thus fulfilling the karmic duty of ‘feeding a thousand souls a day’.
Nagarajan clarifies her idea of ‘embedded ecology’ by explaining that:
Implicit in the use of the term ‘’ecology’’ is the understanding that each culture and each community within a culture has its own myths, memories, associations and cultural obsessions about the natural world. (Nagarajan 1998a).
This article explores the notions of ecology through the lens of women who practice kolam as a daily ritual. In my conversations with Tamil women, I enquired about those cultural, aesthetic and religious conceptions that orient perceptions of natural space as a sacred realm. This is evinced by the significance of Bhu-Devi or Bhumi Devi in the ritual art of kolam. In Hinduism, Bhu-devi is the mythic, iconic and metaphysical personification of the earth. Interestingly, the image of Bhu-devi is perceived as both cosmic and local, as a large living being with a soul and as the particular soil at a woman’s feet in a particular village, town or city. Sivakalai of Kumbhakonam district in Tamil Nadu explains that ‘Bhu-devi should be our first thought in the morning and we draw the Kolam to remind us of Bhu-devi and ask for forgiveness for stepping on her and burdening her with our body weight.' Another woman Vellaiyiammal from the Cuddalore district who works in the rice paddy fields as a wage labour since her house was destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, says that ‘the whole world depends on her for sustenance and she (Bhu-devi) bears us and our endless activities with such patience.'
Nagarajan best describes her conversations about Bhu-devi with an elderly lady from Thilaikuddi village in the Tanjavur district as:
Bhumi Devi is our mother. She is everyone’s source of existence. Nothing would exist without her. The entire world depends on her for sustenance and life. So, we draw the kolam first to remind ourselves of her. All day we walk on Bhumi Devi. All night we sleep on her. We spit on her. We poke her. We burden her. We do everything on her. We expect her to bear us and all the activities we do on her with endless patience. That is why we do the kolam (Nagarajan 1998b).
This virtue of patience is believed to be transferred from the Bhu-devi to the women through the kolam. On festive and special occasions, the women exemplify this virtue of patience by bending down and enduring the long hours of physical and mental involvement needed for large-sized, intricate, traditional kolam design. By just having a look at the kolam in the household, elderly people and others could make out the nature of the women in a particular household - how creative, patient, active and involved they are. A beautiful kolam is seen as possessing Sri lakshanam (prosperity) for the household inmates.
Raji Ramanan, a Sanskrit scholar and a Kolam expert, who has been practicing kolam since her marriage at the age of eighteen, states that the Tamil women were well aware of the integral relationship of each household with ecology and cosmos. She explains that:
Nature was her (Tamil women’s) first and continued inspiration. She knew her ingredient source. They were available from nature and nothing other than that. She never disturbed nature. Through the kolam a relationship with the divine (Shridevi, Shri Lakshmi and Bhudevi) is established. In the act of drawing kolam, the divine is invoked, invited and hosted at the cultural space –the threshold.
Environmental and feminist activist Vandana Shiva emphasises in her book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (1989) that women have been and continue to be ‘naturally’ and ‘culturally’ ecological. She argues, in Hinduism, there is no divide between humanity and nature. Contextualizing this idea from the point of the Tamil women’s worldview, the kolam can be seen as a process of renewing the relationship of the home with the cosmos and the world process. There are some explicit and implicit ways in which this relation is initiated, established and renewed, beginning with the ingredients itself.
The kolam is put on the ground first cleaned and made wet with the mixture of cow dung and water. Cow dung is used for its antiseptic qualities. The cow here means in the modern context the indigenous cow - bos indicus. It is said in Hindu scriptures like Vishnudharmottar Purana, Padma Purana, Brhamana Purana, Skanda Purana, and Mahabharata that the goddess Lakshmi resides in the excreta of the cow which is called gobar (Gita Press VS 2068). The use of cow dung is also believed to be a reflection of prosperity in the house. The wet base allows the mild coarse rice powder to adhere to the ground.
The main ingredient in kolam is rice powder. Traditionally, the rice flour used in drawing the kolam was prepared in chakki – an indigenous, hand operated grindstone consisting of two stone slabs. Nowadays, it is prepared in the grinding machines at home. Rice paste is also used on special occasions, to make large-sized kolam called 'makolam' and for keeping the kolam for many days on the ground. The rice paste is prepared keeping rice soaked overnight and then made into a paste on sil-batta, known as ammi in Tamil. The other materials used are red ochre called geru in Hindi and known as kaavi in Tamil, yellow mud and haldi (turmeric) called as manjal in Tamil. Manjal is used only on special occasions or festivals. Some natural crushed white stone powder is also used at times for just practicing or at places other than the sanctum sanctorum. Ramanan says if the kolam is done with fine ground rice powder or rice paste at times, then for making it colourful and more vibrant ingredients like kaavi, yellow mud, manjal , flowers or other ingredients taken from nature are also included. Even the motifs like the lotus, conch, the sun, kalash (pot), creepers, birds, animals, flowers, fruits, leaves of mango (called maavilai ), etc. depicted in kolams made on different festivals, occasions and ceremonies, were all derived from nature .
Nagarajan says that ‘in making the kolam, the hope is that the auspicious power embedded within the rice flour and invoked by the ritual will be transferred to the community generating abundance and goodwill (2000).' This mutually reinforced relation between the natural and the cultural realms is best described by a Balinese Shaman and quoted by David Abrahm as:
(These rituals) act as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals …he ensures that the relation between the human society and the larger society is balanced and reciprocal and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it, not just materially but with prayers, propitiations and praise. (1996)
The Tamil women too establish and reinforce this interdependent relationship through the practice of kolam. However, the notion that the earth needs protection in the way we understand ideas of ecology and environmental conservation, does not necessarily apply to the realm of ritualistic art practices like kolam.
As Nagarajan states:
'I was puzzled by the contradiction between women’s reverence for Bhu-devi and their seeming disrespect to her throughout the day, as they throw trash and garbage on the earth, the very same place that they considered to be sacred. Was it my own ecological hope that a mythological link to the earth would lead to a greater reverence to the soil in everyday life? (1998a)
In contemporary times, kolam is often made with coloured powders bought from the markets and is popularly referred to as ‘rangoli’ under the influence of the more northern version of similar women’s ritual art. The ingredients used in such kolam designs are mostly chemical and lack both the sanctity of the traditional kolam as well its purpose as an act of generosity and offering to insects, birds and so on. Polyviny rollers have replaced fingers in urban settings of apartment living. Many women say that it is not economically feasible for them to make kolam, especially large-sized kolam only with rice.
An elderly Thulasiyammal from Tanjavur bemoans the use of bazaar bought chemical colours for making kolam in the contemporary times and recalls that in the traditional kolam:
'Nature was given back to nature. The nature giving sustenance through food was offered back to other beings. Through rice powder or paste they would consume. The material used in kolam from cow dung to rice, geru, manjal or any other natural resource was making the mother earth feel secure and comfortable. Whenever the rice flour from the Kolam mixed with the ground, there was no burden to dispose. Every material got mixed, consumed and decomposed within itself.'
During my conversations with the older generation of Tamil women in Tanjavur, Kumbhakonam and Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, I found that that most elderly woman feel that with the coming of modernity, there is a loss in the layered meanings associated with the practice of kolam. Just like Thulasiyammal, other women also pointed out the loss of the practice of generosity, manifested through daily rituals like the kolam.
The identification of ‘embedded ecologies’ in the practice of kolam is ascertained by dialogues with the Tamil women in different parts of Tamil Nadu. The idea of locating sacredness in the landscape, plants (like tulsi, peepal etc), rivers and places is central to the ideology and practice of folk Hinduism. It is my personal observation that the rationale for using rice as the ingredient in kolam is linked to the fact that rice is the staple food in Tamil Nadu and hence becomes a symbol of fertility, good health, nourishment and auspiciousness. To make a kolam with rice hence becomes a symbolic act of offering a portion of the produce as an offering to the soil which originally bears and nurtures it. However, there are also intermittent contradictions and the inference that ‘embedded ecologies’ in the context of ritual practices like kolam must obviously lead to a more ecological sensitive behaviour on the part of the household may not always be true. While it is true that in the modern times, the new generation of Tamil women may not have the time, space and skills to continue the daily ritual practice of kolam in the same way as it was done traditionally, but the fervor and enthusiasm for kolam (at least during the auspicious month of Margazhi that falls between mid-December and mid-January) has still not dwindled.
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