Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
Why do Tamil women draw Kolams daily at the threshold of their homes? Why not do something else?
Such questions and an explanation from a western universal perspective may be found elsewhere. In this article, I present an alternative point of view from my Indian perspective. Menon’s article also has a nice discussion of the significance of a Kolam’s location at the point of entry into a home. It is clear from this discussion, as well as the history of Rangoli, that these designs involve a sacred transcendental dimension. In Itihasa , Rangolis were drawn by the Gopis anxiously awaiting the return of their beloved Krishna, and by the joyous citizens of Ayodhya in anticipation of Rama’s return. Why did they do it?
We can see from Dr. Siromoney’s research, that 16th and 17th century Tamil works record Kolams being drawn prior to a puja invoking Ganapati, the deity who is a remover of obstacles. Today, Kolam drawing in front of their houses remains an integral part of daily life for many Indians, and is also a part of sacred Hindu festivals across India.
A deeper understanding of Kolam (and Indian art in general) can be obtained via the traditional Indian approach that views art, science, etc. as not merely secular aesthetic-intellectual subjects, but also as a link to the sacred realm and worthy of reverence. We can recall that the Ganita genius Srinivasa Ramanujan employed this approach while generating truly astonishing results.
“The aesthetic satisfactions of all kinds and all grades were an important part of the culture. Poetry, the drama, song, dance, music, the greater and lesser arts were placed under the sanction of the Rishis and were made instruments of the spirit’s culture. A just theory held them to be initially the means of a pure aesthetic satisfaction and each was founded on its own basic rule and law, but on that basis and with a perfect fidelity to it still raised up to minister to the intellectual, ethical and religious development of the being….Indian painting, sculpture and architecture did not refuse service to the aesthetic satisfaction and interpretation of the social, civic and individual life of the human being; these things, as all evidences show, played a great part in their motives of creation, but still their highest work was reserved for the greatest spiritual side of the culture, and throughout we see them seized and suffused with the brooding stress of the Indian mind on the soul, the Godhead, the spiritual, the Infinite. And we have to note too that the aesthetic and hedonistic being was made not only an aid to religion and spirituality and liberally used for that purpose, but even one of the main gates of man’s approach to the Spirit. The Vaishnava religion especially is a religion of love and beauty and of the satisfaction of the whole delight-soul of man in God and even the desires and images of the sensuous life were turned by its vision into figures of a divine soul-experience. Few religions have gone so far as this immense catholicity or carried the whole nature so high in its large, puissant and many-sided approach to the spiritual and the infinite.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 227-8)
From an Indian perspective, we can find not one but several key dharmic ideas embedded within the observations made by various researchers about Kolam. We discuss some of them here.
Fractal Kolam: The Anklets of Krishna (Source)
The reader is referred to  to better understand the first idea of Order and Chaos.
Regarding the second concept, many have observed a recursive generating rule pervading Indian art. A similar inductive approach is apparent in various fields such as Sanskrit Grammar (Paninian rules), and Ganita (e.g., Pingala’s Mount Meru, Hemachandra series, etc.). For example, consider the Hindu representation of the cosmos as the Sri Yantra, which clearly exhibits this recursion. Here is a simple DIY Sri Yantra Kolam.
The third feature suggests dharma’s integral unity: the externally visible plurality of designs in a single-strand Kolam have no independent existence of their own, but exist within and as a single line (cycle) that has no beginning and end. This also represents the cosmological idea of a Brahma Mudichchu, or Brahma’s knot.
In travel notes of Dr. Siromoney we find this:
“The South Canara district of Mysore region is studded with Jain temples and each temple has an ornamental flag-staff or dhvaja stambha. The Thousand Pillared Basti at Mudabidare built in the fifteenth century has many ornamental pillars. In some of the pillars there are some complicated designs similar to the Kolam patterns made of unending lines….The unending lines are clearly depicted showing a line superimposed and going over another line at the crossings.“
Note that idea of integral unity is common to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist dharma traditions. In fact, it appears that the Buddha may have been an expert at this art.
Today, multiple independent lines are often used to quickly complete Kolams that become too complex to be completed using a single line. However, mathematicians have been able to recreate elaborate integral Kolam instances (e.g. see the Pavithram (sacred) design below from ) by employing the principles of symmetry and recursion.
Similarly, in Indian art, reconstruction of lost art traditions (actual examples include classical dance and poetry) is achieved via the resemblance principle of bandhu. “Integral unity is not expressed only in terms of divinity and devotion; transcendence to such a state is also available through art. Since time immemorial in India, art has been a way to connect the manifest and the un-manifest, evoking through form the experience that is beyond form.“
“The theory of ancient Indian art at its greatest—and the greatest gives its character to the rest and throws on it something of its stamp and influence—is of another kind. Its highest business is to disclose something of the Self, the Infinite, the Divine to the regard of the soul, the Self through its expressions, the Infinite through its living finite symbols, the Divine through his powers. Or the Godheads are to be revealed, luminously interpreted or in some way suggested to the soul’s understanding or to its devotion or at the very least to a spiritually or religiously aesthetic emotion. When this hieratic art comes down from these altitudes to the intermediate worlds behind ours, to the lesser godheads or genii, it still carries into them some power or some hint from above. And when it comes quite down to the material world and the life of man and the things of external Nature, it does not altogether get rid of the greater vision, the hieratic stamp, the spiritual seeing, and in most good work—except in moments of relaxation and a humorous or vivid play with the obvious—there is always something more in which the seeing presentation of life floats as in an immaterial atmosphere. Life is seen in the self or in some suggestion of the infinite or of something beyond or there is at least a touch and influence of these which helps to shape the presentation. It is not that all Indian work realises this ideal; there is plenty no doubt that falls short, is lowered, ineffective or even debased, but it is the best and the most characteristic influence and execution which gives its tone to an art and by which we must judge. Indian art in fact is identical in its spiritual aim and principle with the rest of Indian culture.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 267-8)
This cosmic knot is not only present in Kolams. The knot that binds the three sacred threads (‘Poonal’ in Tamil), as well as the joining together of the ends of the garments of the bride and groom during a Hindu marriage ceremony symbolizing their seamless and unending union, are other instances of a Brahma Mudichchu. The Brahma knot is also present as the deep and sacred Yogic concept of Brahma Granthi in Kundalini Yoga.
A simple answer to the question of ‘why Kolam?’ is ‘why not Kolam’?
“There is, behind all things, a divine beauty, a divine harmony: it is with this that we must come into contact; it is this that we must express.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 12, p. 237)
All Indian art traditions seek to connect with the sacred transcendental and the Kolam is no exception. This reverence has a practical impact. Traditions rooted in sacred practice endure, while those that exclusively rely on the aesthetic or the intellectual become ephemera. Our closing discussion on the fourth and final point shows how sacred Indian practices such as Kolam are preserved and transmitted.
Here is an interesting statement by a Japanese researcher praising the knowledge of Kolam practitioners: “In southern India, there are many great female mathematicians who solve a complicated line pattern every morning, with white rice powder on the ground. The pattern is drawn around a grid pattern of dots so that the lines minimally encircle each dot, which is so called “Kolam” pattern in Tamil.”
Dr. Siromoney was able to practically demonstrate that a Kolam practitioner’s skill is an outcome of what we recognize today as the important Indic tradition of embodied knowing . Dr. Siromoney’s experiments show that “expertise in Kolam drawing is, thus of the nature of a skill and exhibits all the attributes that psychologists associate with skill-acquisition and performance.”
However, immediately after saying this the article concludes: “Although the performance of this skill results in products (i.e., Kolam patterns) that possess complex grammatical properties, the practitioners of the skill are themselves unaware of this fact since a large proportion of the practitioners are nonliterate.”
This conclusion can now be recognized as inaccurate. Such decisive dismissals have been repeated by several western researchers, who, after using sophisticated instrumentation to record the amazing results achieved in Yoga and transcendental meditation by Hindu and Buddhist Yogis and monks, labeled them as eastern ‘mystics’ , in direct contrast to academy-trained ‘scientists’. Even Srinivasa Ramanujan was not spared since he did not provide a deductive proof for his results. Later, of course, almost all his results were proven by western researchers to be true to their satisfaction.
This confusion can be resolved when we understand that embodied knowing does not require literacy  or knowledge of scriptural text, and can be systematically accessed and transmitted in-person from Guru to Sishya, and mother to daughter.
This is exactly how Sangeetam and Nrityam (traditional Indian music and dance) are taught via repeated demonstration-replication, where no dance-move textbook or musical score sheet is essential. Arguably, the depth of awareness, knowledge and skill acquired via embodied learning may be more than that achieved by tunneling through mountains of text.
“[T]he main metaphysical truths of Indian religious philosophy in their broad idea-aspects or in an intensely poetic and dynamic representation have been stamped on the general mind of the people. The ideas of Maya, Lila, divine Immanence are as familiar to the man in the street and the worshipper in the temple as to the philosopher in his seclusion, the monk in his monastery and the saint in his hermitage. The spiritual reality which they reflect, the profound experience to which they point, has permeated the religion, the literature, the art, even the popular religious songs of a whole people.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 185)
Embodied knowing also democratizes and decentralizes the transmission and reception of knowledge. In fact, it appears that India’s scientific and technical prowess since ancient times until the 1700s was a result of the embodied knowing traditions being passed down from generation to generation by its artisans and engineering communities . The assumption that text-parsing ability is vital to acquiring the deepest knowledge appears to be more typical of Abrahamic tradition, which has been internalized by both secular and religious scholars trained in western academia.
If you haven’t done so before, draw a Kolam at home and teach your kids. Let us rediscover this beautiful Indian tradition, and bring the sacred right to our doorstep and connect to infinity, and beyond!
“If we are to live at all, we must resume India’s great interrupted endeavour; we must take up boldly and execute thoroughly in the individual and in the society, in the spiritual and in the mundane life, in philosophy and religion, in art and literature, in thought, in political and economic and social formulation the full and unlimited sense of her highest spirit and knowledge. And if we do that, we shall find that the best of what comes to us draped in occidental forms, is already implied in our own ancient wisdom and has there a greater spirit behind it, a profounder truth and self-knowledge and the capacity of a will to nobler and more ideal formations. Only we need to work out thoroughly in life what we have always known in the spirit. There and nowhere else lies the secret of the needed harmony between the essential meaning of our past culture and the environmental requirements of our future.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 91-92)
Shivoham is a practicing engineer based in the US. He explores the nature of the unity among the diverse dharma traditions and blogs about it at http://IndicPortal.org. You can follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/integralunity