With the arrival of Pongal roads, lanes and by-lanes of South India present a riot of colors, with elaborate Kolam drawn using white and colored powders in front of houses, shops and offices. Kolam (alpana, rangoli) is one of the ancient arts of India that is practiced daily as a sacred ritual. It is the art of creating rice flour or chalk decorations on a sidewalk, doorstep or wall. While the Kolam is drawn throughout the year in most homes in South India, it is especially significant during Pongal.
Some Kolam designs are simple, white, geometric patterns, covering little space, while others are large, elaborate works of art, incorporating many colors and portraying devotional themes.
In India, a new Kolam is created every day in a ceremonial gesture of beauty, gratitude and sacrifice. The daily practice of clearing the space by washing the sidewalk and creating splendor for all to see is a sadhana (spiritual practice) in which we all can find divinity. The principles of Satyam-Sivam-Sundaram (Sanskrit term meaning; truth, consciousness and beauty) are at play in every facet of our lives and Kolam reminds us of this on a daily basis. Whenever we create beauty we are asking the goddess Laksmi to bestow her blessings. Laksmi is the goddess of auspicious wealth and manifest beauty. Everything in our visible reality is a manifestation of her.
Insects and birds feed on the rice flour used for drawing the traditional Kolam at the entrance of houses. Thus, the Kolam represents man's concern for all living creatures. The Kolam and the bright red border or kaavi enclosing it are also believed to prevent evil and undesirable elements from entering the houses.
On the day of Pongal, family members
jointly draw the kolam with rice flour that can be plain as well as colored. Parallel straight lines can be drawn using a cylindrical rod (Ulakai) as a guide. A kolam can be a plain one or can be artistically drawn with symbols of cosmic interest. The kolam defines the sacred area where the Pongal is prepared.
Within the perimeters of kolam, typically, firewood is used to cook the rice. The Pongal is set up in the direct view of the Sun (East). Traditionally, thekolam is laid in the front or side of the house, but in cold climes where cooking indoors with firewood is hazardous, the Pongal can be prepared in kitchen and brought to the location where kolam is set up.
Kolam drawing tradition has taken on many distinctive style variations as it has spread throughout the world. The Indian ritual of creating rice Kolam at the start of each day has been passed on from mother to daughter for thousands of years. In Tibet, the Buddhist monks work for days to create intricate mandalas out of colored sand. When these are finished they are swept away in a ritual offering of non-attachment. The Navajo tribe in the United States has an elaborate practice of creating sand paintings through which gods can enter into a space and harmony is restored in the universe. Similar practices exist in Haiti as a means for communicating with the Loa (Haitian deities). Though the particulars of each tradition vary slightly the emphasis on transcendent beautification remains the same. Creating the precise yet graceful geometric patterns of Kolam is an excellent practice for focusing the mind and bringing beauty into our lives.