Monday, 7 March 2016

Kolam: Patterns at the Portals

The designs shown on this page are all from a single street in Mattancherry.

The tradition of “kolam” – also called “rangoli” and other names in other parts of Hindoostan ("kolam" being the Tamil word) – is thought to be very ancient. Being an ephemeral art it is very hard to tell. It consists of inscribing geometrical or interlaced patterns on the floor or ground, especially at the entrance to buildings. In an earlier post on these pages (see here) the present writer revealed his fascination for the symbolism of portals and doorways. Kolam is a traditional folk art that is associated with that symbolism. He collects photographs of portals, but he also keeps a collection of kolam designs as he encounters them during his travels. 

In the north of India, in Rajistan and elsewhere, the inscribed patterns are often coloured and resemble what are usually called mandalas. Often they are found on walls or the sides of buildings. In the south, though, the more ancient and rustic practices are preserved and the patterns are found at doorways or on the steps at the front of houses. It is a domestic religious art. Certain patterns are preserved and passed down through families, usually among women. The custom in the south is for women to sweep the doorstep of the house every morning and to inscribe the kolam on the ground using rice powder, a flour paste or, these days, chalk. 

The present author saw a great many such patterns in Bangalore during a visit there several years ago. On his recent journey he has only seen kolam in certain areas of Cochin, specifically some streets in the town of Nazareth and parts of Mattancherry. In particular, one street, resident to a community of Brahmin families, had a large collection of patterns drawn at the front of every house. The pictures illustrating this page are from that street in Mattancherry. 

A very handsome Brahmin gentleman invited the author to photograph them and was happy to discuss them, but he explained that it was largely a matter for womenfolk and he could not provide much information about the actual significances of particular patterns. Some are simple. Some are complex. Some are floriform. Some are astral and star-like. Some are explicitly geometric. Often women pride themselves on being able to inscribe the pattern in a single unbroken movement without lifting the chalk from the ground. “They invite in the god,” the Brahmin explained. This idea is the usual explanation – the patterns are an invitation to the gods, or to good spirits, or to “luck”. Inscribing the pattern at the entryway to the house every morning is regarded as auspicious. 

It should be noted, though, that the patterns are often labyrinthine, and are in this sense connected to portals and doorways. It is sometimes explained that the patterns are designed to bamboozle evil spirits that might try to enter an abode – that, quite the opposite to an “invitation to the god”, they are a barrier to the devil. 

This author is of the opinion that, most probably, the original idea behind such patterns is – like so much other traditional symbolism – astronomical in nature, and that the patterns represent the motions of heavenly bodies and planets as seen from a geocentric viewpoint. They are thus an extension of the astronomical symbolism of portals. The symbolism of the patterns is thus primordial, although its original significance has been forgotten. This is characteristic of Indian religion in general: it persists since very early times and is a remembrance of primordial forms, although the original ideas have been forgotten. Kolam are probably among the clearest examples of this - ancient, primordial patterns preserved as a mere "folk  art" in a simple domestic context. This most humble of art forms might, in fact, be the most pure and profound. The author hopes to explain more of this and expand upon it in later posts.


Harper McAlpine Black

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