Rangoli: Welcome Mat of the Gods

12 April 2017

Throughout the predominantly Hindu country of India, a folk art has been practiced for many centuries. Known varyingly as Kolam, Muggu and Mandana (among other names in this huge and diverse nation), the art of Rangoli is created using dyed rice or sand, flour and the petals of flowers. It signifies a sacred welcoming zone for Hindu deities. It can be quite a welcome.

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Rangoli is the most multicolored of this shared tradition and uses a vast array of materials. Kolam, on the other hand, usually follows more geometrical patterns with a pattern of dots encircled by a series of curving loops – even though more color is added on holidays and for special occasions. Throughout many Indian states, including Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, local varieties can be found which draw on local people’s own preferences and traditions.

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The varying strands of this cultural artistic practice do have a number of other things in common. Generally speaking, these patterns are created in front of the homes of Hindu adherents by those who live within. As the floor is washed before the rangoli is applied, you may not have to guess twice as to the usual gender of the artist. Once can imagine, perhaps, this tradition evolving as an attempt to make this household chore a little more interesting while at the same time acknowledging the gods and bringing luck to the home.

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This is not an occasional practice. Each day millions of women go through the ritual and draw patterns on the ground outside their houses. Often (especially in the tradition of kulam) they are simply done using white rice powder - the geometry takes precedence over the color. Yet as temporary art, the patterns will usually disappear within twenty four hours, eroded by the rain and wind so new ones will be drawn the very next day.

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Old and young, rich and poor, the kolam or rangoli is applied with spiritual fervor throughout much of the land.  Of course, the intricacy of the pattern will all depend on time and resources but lack of both does not stop the faithful.

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The remains of yesterday’s pattern (if there are any) is washed away and cleaned and the new drawing applied directly on to the wet surface, so that the design will hold for a longer period of time. The impermanent welcome mat is a sign to all that they are welcome in the house, particularly the goddess Lakshmi the embodiment of beauty and Hindu deity for prosperity and wealth both of the material and spiritual variety.

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On special festivals such as Diwali, Onam and Pongal, the patterns become larger, more intricate and the colors are allowed to explode in a riot of celebratory joy. For special occasions such as a wedding they often extend down the length of the street. In some areas young women highly anticipate the month of Margazhi as it is then they extend their patterns from their side of the street to the other. They must still adhere to one simple rule, however. The lines must always join up the patterns so that evil spirits cannot enter the shapes. In this way folklore has it that they cannot enter the home either.

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The colors used are intense and almost as impressive before they are sold to the artists as after the art has been created.

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Huge Rangolis like these, drawn by several artists working in sync adorn the streets of Pune during Ganesh festival. The entire city gets on the streets, dancing, swaying to the beats of the most energised musical procession. It is a celebration of their art, history and culture.

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The use of rice powder was traditionally widespread for another reason. As edible art, the rangoli or kolam would be eaten by ants, birds and other animals, and so the art would also become a symbol of harmonious co-existence with all creatures. As such many rangoli have evolved to manifest animals such as peacocks and deer, above.

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Image Credit Flickr User Shande
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Although the patterns have usually been handed from generation to generation, computer science has recently stepped in. The mathematical elements of Kolam in particular have been studied closely. Algorithms have been created to develop and evolving the style and design of kolams but it is not known how many of these new computer generated patterns have been adopted in the various communities which practice this amazing and ancient art.

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