CONTINUED FROM PART 2
Cosmology of the Sacred Kolam
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.
Order and Chaos: The harmonious existence of a Kolam and nature within an endless cycle; a gradual dissolution into chaos followed by an equally inevitable restoration of order the next day. Furthermore, there exists within the seemingly complicated ‘spaghetti’ patterns, some really simple and orderly moves that generate them.
Recursion: for e.g., the fractals identified in the kolam 
Fractal Kolam: The Anklets of Krishna (Source)
The idealized Kolam: a single, unbroken line used to create the entire kolam
The embodied skill required to recall and create complex Kolam designs
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)
- Pongal Kolam. http://www.pongalfestival.org/pongal-kolam.html (2016).
- Colourful Tradition http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2003/01/07/stories/2003010700050200.htm (2003).
- Rangoli History. http://www.rangolidesign.net/rangoli-history.html. 2014.
- Explorations in Applied Geography, edited by Ashok K. Dutt et al. PHI Learning, New Delhi. (2008).
- Dr. Gift Siromoney’s work on Kolam. http://www.cmi.ac.in/gift/Kolam.htm. T. Robinson.
- Preliminary note on geometrical diagrams (kolam) from the Madras Presidency. H. G. Durai, Man, Vol 77 (1929)
- Labyrinth Ritual in Southern India. John Layard. Folklore, Vol 158 (1937).
- Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins India. (2011).
- Reconstruction and extension of lost symmetries: Examples from the Tamil of South India. P. Gerdes, Computers & Mathematics with Applications, Vol 12 (1989).
- Thinking in Patterns: Fractals and Related Phenomena in Nature. By Benoit B. Mandelbrot et al., edited by Miroslav Michal Novak World Scientific Pub Co Inc. (2004).
- Solving Infinite Kolam in Knot Theory. Yukitaka Ishimoto. Computing Research Repository (2007).
READ PART 1, PART 2
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
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
Even now in many parts of Tamil areas,— mostly in rural— in the month of Margazhi (solar month of Dhanus), women draw elaborate kolams in the wee hours each day in front of their homes. Womenfolk share within themselves these goemetric patterns (some of which have been depicted here). The entire street would present such wonderful spectacle. Of course, we know of the aathipu drawn during Onam by Keralites. Alas, in Tamil speaking areas kolam drawing is fast dying mainly due to urbanisation. Young girls have other pre-occupations and other sources of entertainment.
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The place where I live, in rural TN, just outside of Pondicherry, drawing Kolam is still very much a regular activity for women and girls – many also do it twice a day. I see the same practice in most of rural and interior parts of Pondicherry as well. But you are right, in bigger towns and cities perhaps this practice of daily Kolams may be dying out a bit, unfortunately. In Pondicherry they have a kolam competition on every pongal, and the whole main road in front of the seaside is blocked out for this event. It is fabulous to see so many wonderful designs and patterns, some even do kolams with some type of social message woven into their themes.
Thanks for reading and for sharing your observation. Appreciate it.
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Kolam also signifies auspiciousness. News of birth in a family is celebrated immediately by splashing water in front of the house and drawing a kolam. Conversely, if there is bereavement or during performance of shradda there will be no kolam at the front. There is a gentleman in my neighbourhood (near Tambaram) now in his 80s who gave many a woman a run for their money in kolam competitions till some years back! I would pejoratively refer him (within the confines of our house) as “kolam mama”.
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Thank you for adding this important piece of information here, about the relation between kolam and auspiciousness.
Thanks for this post, which is interesting but extremely difficult for me. I always liked mathematics, but this is beyond my comprehension. I think that the women of your country and the men too, are very great philosophers and that we, people from the west, are far too materialistic. We can learn a lot from you!
Wil, ABCW Team.
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Thanks Wil for this comment. I suppose each society and culture has its own positives and contributions to make. India being an ancient civilization and also being a spiritual culture at its foundation has made tremendous strives in bringing spirituality to various aspects of life. This has also resulted in developing special kind of intelligence, like the embodied knowing mentioned in this article. Sadly, many modern Indians don’t value much of these traditional arts and sciences any more, but there are individuals and groups trying to revive and bring out for the modern minds the beauty and value of these for individual and collective life of the society. Kolam is one of these arts.
We all can learn from one another!
Thanks again for stopping by.
This was perhaps the most informative but also the difficult part for me to absorb. Is there any wonder given my math phobia? I am one of those who still make kolam outside my flat in the tiny space. All my elaborate designs are shelved in the recesses of my brain. Indeed, Indians have learnt the fine art of weaving art and culture in their daily lives, in mundane activities that showcase their artistic abilities. And best of all, they do it without any conscious thought about the act at all! Enjoyed this series immensely. Just took too long to post my comment on this one!
Once again, loved your choice of quotes of Sri Aurobindo on this post. But it goes without saying, doesn’t it?
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Love what you say here about the “fine art of weaving art and culture in their daily lives, in mundane activities that showcase their artistic abilities.” It is so true. But what makes it even truer is that this is not done to ‘show off’ in any way, but in the most natural, organic way to express that inner sense of beauty, reverence, love. It is not just a hollow expression (e.g. setting an elaborate table with the finest china and silverware and floral arrangements, which may also be considered beautiful in some contexts), but something that speaks of or expresses something of what is inside. Does that make sense? Hope it does!
Always appreciate your thoughtful and sensitive comments, Zephyr. Never mind the delay 🙂 It is a blessing to have readers like you who so patiently and lovingly absorb the content being shared. Thank you, so much! Love and hugs.
This is such a wonderful blog post. Glad to have found it.
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Thank you! And I am also happy you found it 🙂 Keep coming back!
This is spendid! The science behind the art makes our tradition way more fascinating to me. Each time I hear something like this, it makes me wonder that there is so much of richness that we are not aware of.
If I may, I would love to recommend the book Myth Vs Mithya. It is a beautiful one with some similar explanations. You might be able to derive a better value out of it than I could 🙂
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Thanks, Vinay! And welcome to matriwords!
Glad you enjoyed this series of posts on Kolam. The sad thing is that we have not done enough study of and research into our own cultural, artistic, aesthetic, architectural traditions, and have been only mindlessly aping for a while. It is important not only to look at our traditions but also understand them using our own cultural intellectual framework. That’s what makes my humble beginning of the study of Indian culture so much more meaningful and precious to me.
I have read through the book by Devdutt Patnaik that you mention. To be very frank, I am not a big fan of his work. I have read a few of his other books as well. I just don’t find his approach – how should I say it politely – in-depth enough for my taste 🙂
I am truly mesmerized by the research on a simple (now I understand the complex science behind it!) kolam. Well done Beloo and I am still trying to understand by re reading the post all over again:)
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Thanks, Sunita. But I must clarify that the research on Kolam was done by the author of this piece, Shivoham. My contribution is limited to presenting it here after interweaving it with relevant passages/excerpts from Sri Aurobindo on Indian art, spirituality in art, beauty, etc. I am so happy to know that you thoroughly enjoyed this series. It is very special indeed!
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Sharing a relevant comment posted by Jaya Nair Payikatt on Facebook –
This fascinates me!
It is the energy, as much as the attention focused into the delineation.
These rice powder Kolams should be every where,this morning ritual Connects!
They are mystic symbols; the subtle affability of this part of the world in pure motifs, made every morning, in front of the houses, fused by devotion, the astral influence upon the world cognates in impeccable symmetry.
Ancient India’s design awareness-cosmic designs as expressions from the past, such pure symbolic statements for many arenas which kept the spiritual energy in India so high, this should be kept alive.
I draw them too.