Between the Rangoli lines

Indian Mythology 16 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday (Mumbai) on 29 Nov 2009

Every morning, in my neighborhood, I find a woman painting pretty patterns using rice flour paste just outside the door of her house. She is from Andhra Pradesh and she calls it Muggu. This practice is seen in millions of households across India, mostly in the South where it is also called Kolam. The patterns extend beyond the doorway to the walls of the house too. It is called Alpana in Orissa and Bengal, Aripan in Bihar, Rangoli in Maharashtra. Once, this was a daily practice. In many parts of rural India it is still so. But in most parts of India, this practice is restricted to festival time, Diwali being the most popular one. Other times are Kojagiri, the full moon before Diwali, and Krishna Janmashtami, the birth of Krishna. These patterns are also seen during weddings. This practice of decorating the threshold is even seen in Parsi households.

The patterns are done only by women. And the material used was once rice flour but now synthetic powders, even paint, are being increasingly used. And for the busy household there are readymade sticker bright Rangolis.

Does this have any logical purpose? Yes, say the rationalists, who say the rice flour is meant to feed ants so they do not enter the house. Does it have any aesthetic purpose? Yes, it enables the homemakers make the house pretty. But that still does not explain why it has to be done every day, by women, at the doorway. That the practice becomes elaborate during festivals and rites of passage, indicates that this ritual is rooted in emotion, myth and magic.

In all probability, these are talismans, bringing in good luck into the household. This was a ritual where the matriarch of the household was the grand priestess. This is how she harnessed cosmic energy and brought it into the household. This is how she anchored divine grace to the house. This was a ritual that she did on her own, without the support of any men or priests. But to do this, there were rules. She had to be a married woman with children. Widows were not allowed to do this and virgins could only support their mothers. Only male priests were allowed to make a rangoli but only as part of a ritual; the rangoli was used to mark out the sacred space where the rituals were performed. This was different from the woman’s rangoli that transformed the house into a sacred space.

Many are of the opinion that the rangoli or kollam is what later transformed into Tantrik mandalas and yantras. Or maybe the process was the other way around. These mandalas and yantras used geometrical forms to represent various gods and goddesses, various natural spirits. A downward pointing triangle represented woman; an upward pointing triangle represented man. A circle represented nature while a square represented culture. A lotus represented the womb. A pentagram represented Venus and the five elements.

Typically a Rangoli begins with a grid of dots being made. The more the dots, the more elaborate the patterns. Given the same grid, different women would see different patterns in it, and draw accordingly. So if one walked down the village street, one would find different households with different patterns.

Different households were run by different women and each woman had her own identity and her own sense of aesthetics which she expressed each day in her Rangoli. While the grid of dots united them all, as did the ritual of making the Rangoli, the specific pattern reminded all of the differences. Every woman did her best but no one compared or tried to turn it into a competition. The point was not to be better than others but to be the best as one could be, for one’s own house. Through these beautiful but different patterns, generations of Indians were taught to be tolerant, to enjoy other people’s patterns and enjoy one’s own, without being judgmental.

Just by looking at the pattern one could determine the mood of the household. Daily patterns indicated discipline. Beautiful patterns indicated joy. Elaborate patterns indicated focus and dedication. Shoddy patterns indicated a bad mood, a fight maybe the previous night. Absence of a pattern meant something was amiss in the household. The Kollam serves almost as a message board of the household.

Once in a while, the patterns were fixed as during festival times. Then the women had to set individual creativity aside and align to the demands of culture or tradition. Those were the days when the women were part of a larger whole. The village rules became household rules.

The Rangoli was never permanent. It was wiped off each morning, reminding all that things change. Yesterday’s bad mood can be become tomorrow’s good mood. Bad patterns can give way to good patterns. The household changes and so do its patterns. People learn and grow and with that patterns become more confident and more joyful.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,
    Being a south indian i don’t know much about rangoli but know some about kollam. In scientific mean. There are 2 types of powder used to make kollam. 1. Rice flour 2. a typical powder which resembles rice flour in outlook which is antibiotic powder which kill the germs in leg base when some one place there leg on it. In south india still you may find street merchants selling the 2nd type of powder for kollam. (kollamavu- they call it).
    rice flour powder is used on festival days in south india.

  • Girish

    Here in Karnataka(My home state), I even see people using the white sand that we get when we drill bore-hole.

    I see that people putting Rangoli in the place where they want to keep the offerings to God.

    The often design I see during festivals or during some rituals is the asterisk.

  • Hariharan PK

    Dear Sir
    In South India, the very aspect of making a Rangoli or Kolam as it is called is with RICE Flour. This was to ensure that ants and sparrows take this flour as their breakfast in the morning. The system of feeding others even before feeds himself is evident from these aspects. Of course comemrcilisation has crept in this aspect also, when the white stone power has replaced the white rice flour. so much for our cultural heritage.

  • Hariharan PK

    U should visit south indian towns and villages during the period Dec 15 to Jan 15, when the entire road surface will be covered with beautiful patterns of rangoli and kolam – this the month for ANDAL, the consort of Lord Vishnu and the month is called MARGAZHI.

  • I remember sitting at a corporate office reception late one evening [waiting for my taxi] and being witness to a woman do a most beautiful and yet modern depiction using this method of Rangoli – and all in a matter of five minutes. The difference was that she used beads to fill the spaces and transcend the rangoli pattern to a mural design.

  • Hi Dev,
    I agree that Rangoli is the dashboard of the house providing the snapshp of the house environment. It is a reporting tool and since the houses are managed by women, so it was her responsibility to design it and to ensure her thoughts and mood was reflected (knowing or unknowingly).
    Another piece of MIS (business process was there which we could not interpret earlier). Way to go Dev!!!

  • Subhasis Pujapanda

    Great message ! It gives me insight to infer. The best thing I like in your writing is divergence coverage.

    My best wishes keep writing and make reader prosper!!

  • shweta

    Can you please tell us more about “Andal” whom
    Hari ji has mentioned of?

  • D. Sai Sreedhar

    Hello sir,

    I hope you have seen two set of parallel vertical rangoli lines drawn in the evening in front of the main door. This signifies…. to ask Goddess Lakshmi to enter the house…..

    and similarly in the morning two set of parallel horizontal lines in the morning…. signifying Goddess Lakshmi not to leave the house….

    Just wanted to tell you….

    I like the way you write and I like all the stories…

    Thank You Sir.

  • V.Ganesh

    The life of Andal – A devout brahmin Vishnucitta lived in Villiputtur, a town near Madurai. His daily duties included procuring flowers for the worship of the Lord at the local temple. One morning, he discovered a baby girl lying under a tulasi plant in his flower garden. Having no family of his own, Vishnucitta felt it was God’s grace that gave him this child and named her Godai, or “gift of Mother Earth.” raised her as his own.

    Godai grew up in an atmosphere of love and devotion. Vishnucitta doted on her in every respect, singing songs to her about his Beloved Krishna, The love Vishnucitta had for his Beloved Lord intensified further in his daughter, and before long she was passionately in love with Lord Krishna. Even as a child, Godai made up her mind to marry Lord of Brindavana,
    She would be like to be His bride, Unknown to her father, she adorned herself daily with the flower garland he prepared for the Lord at the temple. After admiring her reflection and thinking of herself as His ideal bride, she would put the garland back for her father to take to the temple and offer to the Lord.
    One day, Vishnucitta noticed a strand of Godai’s hair on one of the garlands. Shocked and saddened by this desecration of what was meant only for the Lord, he scolded Godai for her misuse of the garland and discarded it. He carefully prepared a new one and offered it to the Lord, begging His pardon all the while.
    That night, the Lord appeared to Vishnucitta in his dream and asked him why he discarded Godai’s garland instead of offering it to Him. He told Vishnucitta that He missed the scent of Godai’s body in the flowers, He preferred them that way. Would he please continue to give the garlands once worn by Godai? Overcome with emotion, Vishnucitta awoke and cried tears of both joy and remorse. It dawned on him that his daughter was someone whose love of God was so intense and pure that even he had not comprehended its extent. From this day on, she became known as “Andal”, the girl who “ruled” over the Lord.

    Andal blossomed into a beautiful young woman as she came of marriageable age. When asked to marry, however, she stubbornly refused, saying that she would only agree to marry Sri Ranganatha, the Lord at the great temple town of Srirangam. Vishnucitta despaired, wondering what was to become of his daughter. One night, Lord Ranganatha appeared in his dream and asked that Andal be sent to Him in all her wedding finery. Simultaneously, the Lord appeared before the priests at Srirangam and asked them to prepare for the coming of Andal. Vishnucitta once again was filled with both joy and sadness; joy that his beloved daughter would attain her goal, but sadness
    The Divine Couple: Andal and Rangan
    in Srivilliputtur
    at losing her at the same time. He made all the wedding preparations and arranged for Andal’s journey in a palanquin to Srirangam.

    Andal waited with excited anticipation as the wedding party approached Lord Ranganatha’s shrine. As they entered the temple, she jumped out of the palanquin, unable to restrain herself any longer. Running into the temple sanctum, she embraced Lord Ranganatha and disappeared in a blaze of glory, having joined her Lord. She was only fifteen at the time.

    Andal is now one of the best loved poet-saints of the Tamils. Pious tradition reckons her to be the veritable descent of Bhumi Devi (Mother Earth) in bodily form to show humanity the way to His lotus feet. She is present in all Sri Vaishnava temples, in India and elsewhere, next to her Lord, as she always desired.

  • Very enlightening. I was not aware that there was an eligibility criteria to draw rangoli. Sad but true!

    Loved reading this article… quite a connecting experience with dots.

    • Hemant Naidu

      With all due respect, why does the ‘eligibility criteria’ make you sad ?

  • Dear sir,
    we north indians have the pujari make the alpana for any festival puja in front of the dieties . normally he uses atta and haldi and in the centre of the alpana places the kalash, with water , coin and aam patte, with a rice filled katori on top. and on it comes the diya.

  • ahkila

    dear fren plx leave any nice kollam la plx………

  • Rajesh M. Bhatt

    Hello Devdutt:

    Congratulations! This is just a superb web site! You were superb on Ted.com!

    Very interesting web site, i saw this first time! Need to spread this out more! As a kid, and even as adult, we have been performing lots of Hindu rituals, but without understanding and appreciating the meaning behind it! Our Rishis were scientists! There was beautiful logic and reason behind every action they performed! If we try to understand them, we will have more respect and reverence towards Hinduism.

    I religiously go to Swadhyaya inspired by PP Dadaji. I have come to know that, one of the reasons Hindus do rangoli is the reverence they have for Mother Earth, who gives us everything! Hindus decorate the Mother Earth in appreciation and great love and devotion! This is the same reason, hindus decorate their own bodies because of their belief of “Imdwelling God” in the body temple!
    (I have tried to explain in my own language, which might have some deficiencies, but those will be mine and not PP Dadaji’s)