Like many people who grew up in India, I was very young when my mother introduced me to rangoli, the art of drawing, painting, or creating beautiful designs on the floor outside the home.
The practice has different regional names (like “kolam” in Tamil), but “rangoli” literally means colorful creeper. As a little girl, I watched my mother involved in this breathtaking daily ritual, and I copied her rangolis in my notebooks. I would draw the patterns numerous times until I mastered them. My mother always emphasized the sanctity of rangoli. God, she said, breathed life into the world with the help of the powerful Sri Chakra kolam.
My mother believes that authentic rangoli must be drawn on the ground with rice flour; this is a way to feed ants and display compassion to all living creatures. My mother-in-law, who echoes this thought, also believes that the rice-flour-rangoli is a sign of warmth and welcome to visitors. Both women have an amazing flair for the art and have long discussions about the kind of rangoli to be drawn during occasions like Divali and Dusshera.
Origin of Rangoli
There are competing stories of the origins of this beautiful art form. Wikipedia traces the origin to a legend: When the son of a King’s high priest died, the creator of the Universe, Brahma, asked the King to draw a picture of the boy so that he might breathe life into him. This is perhaps the earliest mention of rangoli. Gradually, rangoli became a form of valued artistic expression for the women of a household.
Rangoli is drawn outside many Indian homes and is one of the first rituals performed diligently in the early hours. Rangoli is also drawn in front of temples. Although the name rangoli carries the meaning of color, the artwork in practice is mainly drawn in white. Color is applied on the rangoli only on special occasions, like birthdays, weddings, or festivals. During the Kerala harvest festival, Onam, rangolis are usually decorated with flowers.
Rangoli is drawn using white powder (chalk powder, sand, or rice flour). The powder is held between the thumb and the index finger and slowly allowed to fall on the floor in patterns. Some houses also have their walls attractively decorated with hand painted rangoli artwork.
Types of Rangoli
Rangoli artwork is anything that appeals
to the eye, and may include structured patterns and depictions of nature, like flowers, butterflies, or stars. One form of rangoli is entirely free form. Some are geometrical patterns like intertwined triangles, squares, and pentagons. Another popular rangoli is the curving or geometric form with dots; curves are marked around different sets of dots to make complicated designs.
The Sri Chakra rangoli is an example of a sacred form of the art. It is a geometrical figure, which has many intertwined triangles, and is considered the symbolic representation of the Goddess. In many parts of southern India, the Sri Chakra kolam is drawn elaborately, a lamp is lit, and the sacred Lalitha Sahasranamam (the 1,000 names of the Goddess) is chanted. Another well-known sacred rangoli is the Hridaya Kamalam, or Lotus Heart.
Many people argue that the spirit of Hinduism is represented by rangolis. Hindus are encouraged to feed all forms of life before feeding themselves; true to this belief, rangolis are drawn using rice flour to feed even the tiny ant before the members of the household.
Rangoli as Communication
Rangolis may have served as “notice boards” in years past. People knew the occasion and spirit of a household by the decoration outside the home. For example, rangolis are not drawn during mourning, and the absence of a rangoli is telling. Similarly, a well-decorated rangoli drawn from a mixture of rice flour and water would suggest festivity.
Rangoli in Modern Times
As has happened to many traditions in contemporary times, rangoli is dying a slow death. Many people today live in high rise buildings and apartments, where the practice of rangoli is no longer feasible. Rangolis drawn on beautiful floor tiles also do not show very well, and many opt for available rangoli stickers. Rangoli stencils are often used by those who want to honor the ritual but are pressed for time.
My mother helped me learn the craft of rangoli, which I still proudly display on special occasions. But I miss those pristine mornings of my childhood, when my mother and I discussed new ideas for rangolis and created complicated new patterns, trying each one many times before actually displaying it outside the house. This, now, is the stuff of memories.
Sudha Subramanian is an independent writer based in Dubai.