Significance of Kolam in Tamil Culture

in Overview
Published on: 03 July 2018

Anni Kumari

Anni Kumari is a visual artist, art educator and independent researcher based in Delhi. Currently, a professor at Ashoka University, she teaches a course in experiential drawing. She has been a grantee at Lalit Kala Akademi, Ministry of Culture, University Grants Commission, Spic Macay and Artreach India.
She has published and presented research papers as part of the Delhi Citizen Handbook under Centre for Civil Society and the National Queer Conference at Jadavpur University by Sappho for Equality. Her works have been exhibited at British Council, Alliance Francaise, German Embassy and India International Centre. She has been part of select shows at Art District XIII (Delhi), OED Gallery (Kochi) and Piramal Art Foundation (Mumbai).


Kōlam is a daily women’s ritualistic art form created by Tamil Hindu women throughout Tamil Nadu in southeastern India. Each day before dawn, during the Brahma muhurtam (believed to be the time when Brahma and all other deities descend to the earth) and sometimes before dusk, millions of women in the town, villages and the cities of Tamil Nadu (and Pondicherry) draw kōlam on the thresholds and floors of houses, temples and businesses. In Tamil culture, the threshold is of great significance as the meeting point of the internal and the external and kōlam is one of the many manifestations of that significance.  


Sometimes referred to in English as household marks or threshold designs, the word kōlam in the Tamil language means form and beauty (Nagarajan 2012). A symbol of auspiciousness and divinity, kōlam is made with rice flour, finely ground rice powder /paste (called kola-podi in Tamil ) or at times vegetable and mineral based coloured powders on carefully swept grounds (revered as Bhudevi or Mother Earth). In the contemporary time, to cut down costs white chalk or stone powder (available in packets in market) is mixed with a certain proportion with rice powder.  


The kōlam patterns are drawn deftly by women with the tips of their fingers using pinches of flour held between the thumb and the first finger and letting the powder fall in a continuous line by moving the hand in desired directions (Siromoney 1978). The patterns of lines and curves are based on a grid of pullis (dots) that are encircled, looped or joined using straight or curved lines. The process involves concentration, memory and a series of disciplined hand and body movements. Working with great dexterity and speed, the women make highly intricate and complex designs that vary according to events or days of the Hindu calendar (see video).  


The designs vary daily, from a simple star pattern of opposing, interlocking triangles to highly complex labyrinthine designs that are not easily comprehended (Brooke 1953; Kramrisch 1983, 1985; Layard 1937; Nagarajan 1993, 1998a, 1998b, 2012; Pillai & Saroja 1987; Saroja 1992; Steiman 1988; Thiruvenkatampillai et al. 1884). The knowledge of Kōlam patterns is transferred orally through generations amongst women as they learn by observing their relatives perform this ritual daily. At first glance the patterns appear quite simple, but it takes years of practice and training to master the complex Kōlams. In most households, women carefully store  their practice notebook, a record book of kōlam drawings in pencil, pen or coloured pencils  and share the most complicated and difficult traditional patterns with one another.  


Perhaps, what is most striking about kōlam is that much of the time it is ephemeral, transitory and impermanent (Nagarajan 2012). Depending on the ritual occasion, and the time of the day, the kōlam is created in a few minutes or a few hours, and after only a few hours, it disappears under the feet of a passerby. In kōlam making the process of making and getting lost is repeated as a rhythm, wherein fresh patterns are made as old ones get lost in some moment of the day. As ants, birds and tiny insects feed on the rice flour, wind and people’s footsteps further disturb and eventually erase the kōlam; the cycle is repeated again the next morning. It is almost like a renewal visual performance in which both tradition (continuity) and change (innovation) exist simultaneously.


Krishnaveni (a resident of Velachery area in South Chennai and an avid participant of the Mylapore kōlam competition) says ‘several patterns can be made from the same grid of pullis by just making some small changes. It all depends on the spur of the moment and the mood of the women at that moment in time’.  


From a broad perspective the kōlam can be seen as one of the several women’s ritual art practice performed as ephemeral designs on thresholds by Hindu women throughout the different states in India. These parallel women’s floor art traditions exist in several regions of the country and are known as :  rangōli in Karnataka (Hacker 1975), muggu in Andhra Pradesh (Kilambi 1986), sathayā in Gujarat , madnā in Rajasthan (Saksena 1952, 1972, 1985), ālpanā or aripan in West Bengal (Das 1957, 1943; Das Gupta, 1960; Chatterji 1948; Gupta 1983), aippan in Himachal Pradesh,  chita in Orissa, Pookalam in Kerala , Chowkpurna in Uttar Pradesh and so on (Kramrisch 1983, 1985; Miller 1983). Interestingly, although these various women’s ritual drawings created in different regions of the country have much in common, in terms of purpose, intention and symbolic value, the design patterns are distinctive to each region, place and community.  


Vijaya Nagarajan in her article ‘Rangoli and Kōlam‘ states that ‘the critical distinction between the kōlam and other women’s ritual designs is that the kōlam is drawn daily in Tamil Nadu’. Most of these other women’s ritual patterns are drawn occasionally to celebrate, to honour and to mark various occasions – a sacred day or time, annual festivals like divālī or puttāntu (Tamil new year), a day associated with the manifestation of a god or goddess or a vrata (a vow)  and so on (Archana 1981). It is important to note that women from other religious communities like Jains and Roman Catholic community (like the Paravar) also draw Kōlam on special ritual occasions. Besides these, other  ritual art forms like mandalas and yantras are performed in highly ritualized contexts such as in building temples and houses rather than everyday life (Hudson 2008; Tucci 1973).   


Kōlam is also more geometrical and involves an intrinsic mathematical aptitude as compared to Rangoli or other popular floor art traditions. There is definitely a strong mathematical thinking in kōlam as the arrangement of pullis is based on Fibonacci series, algebraic and numeric principles. Kōlam epitomizes geometrical properties of symmetry, periodicity/repetition, recursion and rhythm (Ascher 2002a, 2002b; Siromony 1985). Most kōlam patterns frequently include the use of concepts from calculus and applied mathematics. For example, the use of continuous curve in two dimensions is a graph in which there are no holes or breaks and for which the beginning and ending points are the same.


Such curves appear in many kōlam designs (Ascher 2002a). This is particularly true about Kambi kōlam, sikku kōlam, and chikku kōlam, created by looping the dots by a single, continuous line or several lines crossing one another, forming intertwined patterns. These knotted kōlam involves drawing a line looped around a collection of dots (pullis) placed on a plane such that three mandatory rules are followed: all line orbits should be closed, all dots are encircled and no two lines can overlap over a finite length.  


The kōlam patterns are one and many things intertwined, exemplifying geometrical symmetry, precision and an understanding of the complex, interconnected existence of human beings with nature and the cosmos. Kōlam patterns have been referred to as  labyrinth ritual (Layard 1937), ethomathematics( Ascher 1991), as materialisation and embodiment of rhythms (Laine 2013), visual ethnographs, infographics ( Abraham and Chacko 2017) and as designs overlapping narration, metaphor, philosophy, religion and community culture by different researchers.  Academic research interest in kōlam borders social anthropology, community interaction, functional mathematics, gender aesthetics and identity.   


Origins and historical references   


The origin of the kōlam tradition is ambiguous and murky. According to Professor Gift Siromoney of Madras Christian College, there is no reference to the kōlam either in the Tamil word-lists (called Nigandus), Tamil literature, in ancient paintings or in any travellers' account.


He pointed out in his article in the Kalakshetra Quarterly (Siromoney 1978:9-14 ) that : 

Contrary to popular belief, the common threshold patterns are not very ancient. The practice of decorating the floor may go back to about six hundred years and not more. A few designs may be traced to the Jain temples of South Kanara and at least one to Mahayana Buddhism…in Tamil literature the use of the word kōlam for drawing patterns on the floor is met with for the first time in a Kuravanji called Madurai Meenatchiammai Kuram and a little later in Kutrala Kuravanji. The former work belongs to the sixteenth century and the latter to the seventeenth. (Siromoney 1978)


However he did agree that some geometric patterns, yantra or Tantric designs that are used in kōlam are of quite ancient origin. Stella Kramrisch in her book –The Ritual Arts of India mentions that references to drawing sun petals on the ground can be found as early as the Vedic texts, which give us a clue as to the ancient origin of kōlam.   


Though the word kōlam appears several times in ancient Tamil Cankam literature, not one of the references refers to the actual designs themselves; they allude to the other meanings of the word, kōlam: disguise, play, beauty and form (Nagarajan 2012). In Tamil literature, such as the Tiruppāvai (sacred poetic songs by Āntāl) and the Tirumoli by Nācciyār, the word ‘mandala’ is used as a reference to women’s ritual art (Cutler 1979; Dehejia 1990). The space referred to in the context is that in front of the house and the drawings made of sand, though no direct reference to the kōlam in the way it is popularly known now is made herein.  


The earliest textual references to the word kōlam occur in a 13th-century inscription in Tirunelveli, in reference to the duties of temple women, including the cleaning and decorating of the temple’s floors with kōlams (Orr 2000). Another textual reference can be found in 17th-century Sanskrit text on the orthodox Hindu woman, the Strīdharmapaddhati, written by Tryambakayajvan. It is mentioned here that the threshold of homes should not be left blank; they should be filled with ritual designs, they should be done by either the woman of the household or a servant (Leslie 1989:62–65).  




Tamil women draw the kōlam with their hands using rice flour /stone powder or other coloured ingredient held in a container–usually a plastic bowl or a traditional half-coconut shell.  There are two methods of kōlam making: the dry-rice-flour method and the wet-rice-flour method.  


In the dry- rice-flour method, first, a pinch of rice flour is picked by the thumb and held firmly against the forefinger. Then, the rice flour is dropped evenly by pushing the thumb lightly against the right forefinger, almost an inch above the floor. In the villages the ground for the kōlam is first swept and cleaned by sprinkling water. Then a mixture of cow-dung and water is either sprinkled or applied by hand before drawing the kōlam.    


For special occasions to make the kōlam hold longer, the rice flour is made wet by adding water. A small cloth piece folded over (or a paper towel) is dipped into the liquid rice paste and placed between the thumb, the forefinger, and the middle finger and pressed until drops of wet white rice flour pours through the front end of the three fingers. The kōlam is created, almost as if the fingers were acting as an ink pen. These semi-permanent kōlam are called mākōlam. The challenge here is to ensure that the rice flour spreads evenly on the ground in a smooth, continuous, flowing manner so that the shapes appear smooth and evenly drawn.   


Sometimes in a rush or due to space crunch, prepunched patterned stencils and rollers made of brass, stainless steel, aluminum, or polyvinylchloride (PVC) are used to stamp complex designs. In the contemporary time, plastic stick-on decaltype kōlam designs, sold in almost every general store or supermarket are often placed on the thresholds of modern apartments, where space is scarcer.  


Designs and line types in kōlam 


The designs can be divided into geometric, figurative and landscape styles, or a combination of them. The basic geometrical shapes used in kōlam include the circle, triangle, square, spiral and so on, each having its own significance. The pullis (dots), straight line, circle, triangle and square, have a symbolic value in representing the basic energies of the universe. For instance the popular six-pointed star represents the union of the male and the female, made of triangles in opposite direction. Basic geometrical shapes are combined and overlapped in increasing complex designs to represent particular forces or qualities embodied in some aspect of creation, evolution or dissolution. In complex designs large, elaborate labyrinth kōlams are built on a sequence of dots as their base( see photo gallery for reference).  


Based on a regular(square /triangle/rectangle/rhombic) grid of pullis, a perfectly symmetrical design of geometrical patterns or flowers, birds, trees or divinities, gradually emerges as these dots are either joined by lines or looped. Many of the kōlam patterns are abstract, but there are also conventionalized forms of auspicious symbols, myths, and attributes, like sacred pots, vase, sacred lamp, conch, lotus flower, mirror, bowls, drums, sacred letters, snakes, books and particular gods and goddesses. Some of the contemporary inclusion in kōlam copy books include secular motifs, such as aeroplanes, sofas, chariots, dolls, toys, butterflies, elephants, Disney characters (Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Donald Duck) and even Santa Claus.  


The types of line observed in the kōlam designs are: 1. Straight lines 2. Curved lines 3. Open-ended lines 4. Lines with ends closed 5. Vertical lines 6. Horizontal lines 7. Zigzag lines 8. Wavy lines 9. Short and long lines.  Based on the size and kōlam designs, the artists use various lines of different thickness. It is observed that line thickness varies from thin, thick, single, double, triple or multiple lines to dotted, dashed and thick-thin lines, which are lines with different frequencies. People use single and multiple lines of drawings in kōlam designs. The importance and splendour of a particular celebration is conveyed through the number of lines used in Kolam. People use two lines on ordinary days, whereas on special days the number of lines increases. 


Kōlam variants  


Some of the prominent kōlam types are listed below:  


1. Kōlam made during important festivals and religious celebrations 


    •    Kōlam on Pongal: Pongal is the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu celebrated during the month of Margali/Margazhi (the ninth month of the traditional Tamil Calender  that extends from mid-December to mid-January, considered as the most auspicious). Tamilians offer thanks to the environment which helped in the harvest. Therefore, the Kōlam done on this day is around chullah (stove) in the kitchen also and they make a  figure of Surya, sugarcane or kalash. The figure of Surya is also made on this day symbolising the beginning of Uttarayan. Rice powder is generally used to create Kōlam on this occasion.  


    •    Kōlam on Janmashtami-/Gokulashtami :On this festive occasion, a large Kōlam on the entrance is made to celebrate the birth of Krishna, the eight avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu.  Alongside motifs of little footsteps are also made from entrance to the place of worship in the house. It denotes the footprints of Lord Bal Krishna entering the house. A large kōlam is also made in the worshipping room of the house. 


    •    Kōlam on Deepawali: Usually a big Kōlam is made with rice powder along with Kaavi (brick red powder, used as a border for enclosing the Kolam, believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the house), Yellow Mud or other powdered ingredients. The most popular motif is the lamp and lotus. 


    •    Kōlam on special occasions–vrats( sacred vows) :There are also some rarely done kōlams, such as the navagraha kōlams, which are done only in front of household shrines, and only on special occasions.  


2. Kōlam made during specific events in the family 


    •    Kōlam on Birth (Thottil Kolam): On the naming ceremony of the newborn child this kōlam is made. The paddy (rice bundle) is kept in the middle of the Kolam. Then a song is sung which prays for the good health and long life of the child.   


    •    Kōlam on Marriage (Manai /Kanya Kolam): The Kōlam made on this occasion is usually large and intricate. Kōlam experts in the family lay the main part and the outside portion of the kōlam which are to elongate the main part are done by the other women. Everybody is involved. A binding, Mostly of rice powder and rice paste (prepared by soaking the rice overnight then making a paste of it) is used along with Kaavi and Manjal (turmeric)  


    •    Kōlam on 13th-day ceremony of the departed soul (Kalyana kolam): A very big Kōlam is made in the house on the 13th day of the ceremony of the departed soul. The grih shanti hawan (ritual wherein offerings are made to a consecrated fire) is done. Until the tithi (date) of the death ceremony arrives the next year, no Kōlam is supposed to be made since it is the mourning period. 


3. Kōlam on special days of the week and for welcoming friends, family and good spirits 


    •    Kōlam on Friday (Padi Kolam): It is specific Kōlam specially made for Goddess Lakshmi. Friday is very important for Tamilians. Friday is the day for Goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of bounty and prosperity)and the kōlam is made to welcome and invite her into the house.  


    •    Welcoming kolam (Nalvaravu Kōlam): This kōlam is drawn to welcome friends, guests at home, or at some other venue to welcome them on some celebration. Elements like lotus, conch, lamp, etc are used in this Kolam.  


4. Everyday Kōlam, made as a symbol of  auspiciousness, spirituality and prosperity of family members 


    •    Chikku/Sikku (Knot or twisted) kōlam: In this kōlam design the curved lines are made around the dot making an intricate pattern where one can not figure out where the design begins from and where it ends.   


    •    Pulli kōlam: The kōlam is drawn after putting dots in a grid/matrix. Then as per the choice of the maker the design is made around the dots forming a pattern. A range of kōlam patterns like Kambi (line) kōlam, Neli (curve) kōlam, Kodu (tesselated) kōlam, Woda pulli (loop kōlam with hexagonally packed dots) kōlam, Ner pulli (loop kōlam with square-packed dots) can be created.  


Significance of kōlam 


There are multiple interpretations of the ritual, symbolic and cultural significance of kōlam. When Tamil women are asked why they perform this daily ritual of drawing the kōlam, they give various reasons.  


Most say they draw the kōlam to honour, invite, welcome, host and express gratitude to particular gods and goddesses–Bhudevi (representing the earth, soil, and sacred geography), Lakshmi(→ Shri Lakshmi , Goddess of wealth , prosperity , good fortune, good health, and good luck), Surya (→ Sun god , God of good health and wisdom)  and Ganesha (→ Ganapati/Ganeśa , the elephant-headed god, who is considered to be the remover of obstacles). The kōlam acts as a visual device to remember and ask for forgiveness for walking, stepping and burdening her (Nagarajan 1998a, 1998b, Nelson). It is also believed that the kolam is performed to fulfill one of the daily obligations of a Hindu household, ‘to feed a thousand souls’ (Nagarajan 1998a, 1988b, 2000, 2001).  


Interestingly, the kōlam is also drawn to banish the evil: Mūdevī, Lakshmi’s sister, believed be a fore bringer of poverty, illness, laziness, sleep, and ill luck (Nagarajan 2012). The absence of a kolam signifies either the household is not Hindu or an inauspicious event like death has occurred in the household.  


In that sense the kōlam can be seen as an underlying visual mapping of the auspiciousness and inauspiciousness; ritual purity and ritual pollution for Tamil households in the context of ritual space and time (Nagarajan 2007). For instance, the kōlam is not drawn during the three days of menstruation cycle and 12 to 13 days after the death of a close family member or close kin (Nagarajan 2012).   


Besides, the ritual resonance, there are a host of other layered meanings ascribed to the kolam. It is considered as a matter of pride and satisfaction for Tamil Hindu women to be able to draw the traditional one-curve kolam in one go rather than in pieces. Traditionally, Kolam skills are considered as a sign of the talent and prowess of a woman in her capacity as the proprietor of the household. During the sacred Margazhi month women compete with one another in a spirit of playful competition in the various Kolam contests organized in cities, towns and villages in Tamil Nadu (see images and video of the Mylapore Kolam contest).  


From the point of ethnomathematics, Kolam is known to have ‘embedded mathematical properties’ that a range of mathematicians have attempted to decode (Asher 1991, 2002; Siromney 1974, 1985; Subramanian 2006; Prusinkiewicz & Hanan 1980; among others). In the making of Kolam all the six categories of mathematical skills: counting, locating (identifying), measuring, designing, playing (experimenting) and explaining are involved (Bishop 1988). In order to be able to make a perfect design, the women need to keep a count of vertices, the numbers of curves and the points at which the curves or lines meet. Anna Laine explores the rhythmic aspects of Kolam practice by applying Henri Lefebvre’s analysis of rhythms to the process of Kolam making. In Lefebvre’s conceptualization, rhythm is the interaction between time, space and energy in the processes of everyday life (Laine 2013; Lefebvre 2004). Scholars have also explored the relationship of kolam with ecology (see allied article 1 and video, ‘Ecological Connect in Kolam’) (Nagarajan 1998, 2000, 2001b), gender (see allied article 2) (Dohmen 2001) and the symbolic mapping of the cosmos (Beck 1976). 


Thus the practice of Kolam is a truly diverse and experiential one that can be fully appreciated only when seen from the wide perspective of everyday life.


References and Further Reading


Nagarajan, V. 2006. 'The Thinning and Thickening of Places, Relations, and Ideas, in „Post-field Positioning' . In: S. Seizer, ed., Indian Folklife. Chennai.  

------ 2003a. 'Floor Designs'. In: M. Mills, P. Claus & S. Diamond, eds., South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia, New York. 197–198.  

------. 2003b. 'Kōlam'. In: M. Mills, P. Claus & S. Diamond, eds., South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia. 340–343.  


Gilsdorf ,Thomas E. 2015. 'Gender, Culture and Ethnomathematics'. Published in Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Mathematics Education and Society (MES-8) Edited by Swapna Mukhopadhyay. Brian Greer. 


Alaine M. Low, S. T. 2001. Women as Sacred Custodians of the Earth? Women, Spirituality and the Environment. New York: Berghahn Books.