Kolam Designs

Saro Kumar, born in Malaysia of south India ancestry, introduced us to Kolam designs, a tradition in India for 2,500 years. She became exposed to it when she went to India for medical school.

Known by different names in various states of India, similar in some ways to the Buddhist mandalas, kolam drawing is widespread throughout southeastern Asian countries.

Kolams are symmetrical designs that women make with rice flour outside their homes each morning. Daily, the woman of the house will rise early, perform her personal cleansing ritual, and sweep the area outside her door clean. She then makes a pattern of dots with rice flour; the number of dots determines how simple or complex her design will be. She next connects the dots in a closed pattern. This activity benefits the woman in three ways: getting her out in the fresh air, providing  physical activity, and serving as a form  of meditation.

The philosophy behind Kolam is to invite good fortune into your house and keep it inside by making the design closed. It is also a tradition of harmony with the world because ants, birds and animals come and eat the rice flour; by the end of the day, the design has been wiped away to be created anew the next morning. More elaborate designs are made for weddings and other special occasions. Initially designs were less elaborate, but now colored powder is often used, along with flowers, seeds, and feathers. Kolams are sometimes drawn in front of household altars.

We viewed slides of some designs and were especially impressed with pictures of elaborate kolams done by a friend of Saro’s for her children’s weddings. These were done with liquid rice flour so they would last longer and took many hours to construct; once the pattern was established, others joined in to help complete them.

Since several women at the meeting either had visited or were from India/Pakistan and all of us were impressed by the intricate designs, interest was high–lots of questions were asked and experiences were shared.

Kolam is only done by women; girls are taught to do this as children primarily by sitting and watching the adults. Ladies socialize and discuss designs, taking ideas from each other.

Women usually don’t measure the distance between dots as they lay them out. Small, simple designs can be completed in five minutes. Apartment dwellers make designs outside their doors; apartments in India generally have a wind tunnel design that is open to the breeze so birds and animals still eat the rice flour.

Modern women have less time to make kolam so there are shortcuts. Saro showed us “cookie cutter” type rollers; when filled with rice flour, an edge design can be rolled out. Women can also buy pre-made designs to put outside their doors. Saro showed some patterns she bought in India on her trip there last December. She also passed around an old book containing 500 intricate kolam designs. Today, spirited competitions are held where girls try to make the most elaborate designs.

Cow dung was once used to prepare a surface for the designs;a paste of cow dung and water was laid almost like a paint providing a barrier against water and conveying a religious significance. One slide showed a kolam made for Thanksgiving, celebrated during the harvest in January. The center of the design depicted the traditional pot of new rice and new lentils that is allowed to boil over symbolizing prosperity.

Yuko Kise, left, and Joy Pople work on Kolam designs.

The second half of the meeting involved trying our hands at making kolam designs. At each table (seating four to six people) we found plain paper, paper with a dot grid laid out, crayons, pencils, and examples of simple designs. Saro passed out some of the pre-made patterns and we got to work attempting to copy them or to design our own kolams. While some were able to create lovely designs, others of us found out firsthand how challenging welcoming the Goddess of Good Fortune can be! For all, however, the best part about this time was the conversations we shared as we worked on our designs or re-visited the refreshment table. 

We reflected that like kolam, WTB is about “connecting the dots” through sisterhood, sharing, education and service.