Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Kolam and the Bazaar

I had been walking through the streets of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. I walked through street bazaars and almost every shop had in front of it a Kolam. It was now a week after Pongal. What was the relevance of the Kolam? I looked in the library for books where I’d find answers.

The first book said, “It is a common thing in Hindu quarters of towns and villages that young maidens with cheerful faces are engaged every morning early after sunrise, in forming designs called Kolam in Hindu Tamil phraseology, on the floor in front of each and every one of the houses along the street”. This was in a book first published in 1925 - ‘South Indian Customs’ by P.V. Jagadisa Ayyar.

Ayyar further explained: “Ancient Hindus used rice flour to form the designs and thus fed myriads of ants every day which would otherwise get into undesirable places in the house. Further ‘Start the business of a day with a sacrifice’ is the Hindu motto. What other better mode of sacrifice could be suggested than this”. So, was the Kolam in the Bazaar street as much in the Residential street because of this Hindu motto?

It seems that originally it was rice flour or pulverized corn that was used for making the Kolam. This was replaced by powdered limestone. In every house, the woman’s first task in the morning was to sweep the house entrance clean, sprinkle water to keep down the dust and decorate the place with Kolam.

I then began to look up what the books said about Pongal. Fred W.Clothey (1983) in ‘Rhythm and Intent’ explains that “Festivals are celebrated in every society at appropriate junctures of the year in such a way as to make these junctures meaningful. As with rituals, festivals express the polarities in cosmic and human life: there is fasting and feasting, there is ushering out of the old, the welcoming of the new”.

“A festival of ecological significance marks an astronomical or seasonal event. The Pongal is such a festival celebrating the harvest and also the sun’s entrance into its ‘northern’ journey after the winter solstice. On the other hand, a theological festival is primarily designed to celebrate some event in the life of a deity or sacred being”.

There was more. Abbe J.A.Dubois (1906) in ‘Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies’ had explained the reason behind the making of the kolam: “During the inauspicious month which precedes the Pongul, sannyasis or mendicants, go from door to door about four o’clock in the morning, waking all sleepers by beating their gongs, warning them to take precaution against the evil influences of this unlucky period.”

And, what I read next was really interesting. “With this purpose in view, the women of the house every morning prepare a small patch about a yard square outside the door, smearing it with cow-dung and tracing several white lines upon it with rice flour. They then place within this square several pellets of cow-dung each adorned with a pumpkin flower. These pellets are supposed to represent Vigneshwara, the god of obstacles, whom they seek to appease. Every evening, these little balls of cow-dung, together with their flowers, are carefully collected, to be kept till the last day of the month. When this day arrives, the women put these pellets into a new basket and solemnly carry them away beyond the precincts of their dwellings and throw them into a tank”.

I know this blogpost is really getting long, but there’s just a bit more. “On Pongal day, women put rice to boil in milk on a fire. As soon as it begins to simmer, they all cry out together, ‘Pongul, Pongul’. They then remove the vessel from the fire and place it before the idol of Vigneshwara, to whom they offer a portion of the rice; another portion is given to the cows, and the rest is eaten by the people of the house”.

"On this day Hindus exchange visits. On meeting each other, the first words they say are: ‘Has the rice boiled?’ to which the answer is ‘It has boiled’. It is for this reason that the feast is called Pongul, the word being derived from Pongedi in Telugu and Pongaradu in Tamil, both signifying to boil".

So, finally, I knew how it came about that Kolams were made during Pongal time. Even though sometimes we don’t know the complete story behind some of our traditions, they still continue, they are still a part of our lives, our streets. If the tradition hadn’t continued, we’d have never known!


Divenita said...

That was a very interesting read and trust me, i did not feel it was long!
I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Kolam and the various rituals involved during Pongal.

Thanks a lot!

Anuradha Shankar said...

nice! you seem to have done quite a bit of reading on this! and the kolams are beautiful!! i have enjoyed the dec/jan i have spent in chennai and around, but never been around for pongal

Indian Bazaars said...

Divenita: The first time I experienced something like this was years ago in a village in andhra. There it's "Muggulu". Ever since been curious about it.

Anuradha: Yes, the Kolams looked really nice in the morning. You could see the wet earth below them. I had to take these pictures with an iPod so they are not sharp enough.

R Niranjan Das said...

Awesome read! That is a lot of research into the Kolams.

radha said...

When a post is interesting, the longer it is...the better. I remember being told why rice flour was used originally for the kolam. So, I looked around too. This link might be of interest

Indian Bazaars said...

R Niranjan Das: Thankyou.

Radha: Thanks. I really liked the explanation that negativity gets entangled in the complexity of the Kolam design and therefore cannot enter the house.

Anjali said...

Very interesting read. What we were taught as kids is it a way to welcome positivity in our home by showing them the way to our home by marking the doorway with symbolic designs. Each design had its significance, like a swastik, cow's hoof marks, koiree ( mango blossom) etc.

Here are some daily captures of Kolam a friend of mine had put on this blog. BTW Srini is IIMB alumini and currently Prof at IIMU

Sarah said...

I never heard of the term 'kolam' before. I've always referred to them as 'rangolis'. Can you tell me the difference?

Indian Bazaars said...

Anjali: Thanks for the link to Srini's blog. I thought it was so good to have a blog completely dedicated to the Kolam. And, yes, each kolam had its own meaning. I also remember reading that a particular ‘Muggu’ or ‘Rangoli’ was drawn if the people of the house were on fast, another one gave the message that a member of the family was taken ill and the guest could visit another day.

Sarah: The word 'Kolam' and 'Rangoli' have the same meaning. Until now, I thought Rangoli was the term used all over North India but just discovered on googling that in addition to Rangoli, in Rajasthan, it is called Madana; in Bihar, it is Aripana and so on.

Anjali said...

another evolution of rangoli is, traditionally it was done with rice flour later came the use of lime and marble powder. Then paint and and now we even have stickers.