BY SIMON MUSASIZI
The dawn before the sun rises is the sweetest time to enjoy sleep. For most people, it’s the toughest time to wake up. However, for the women in South India, this is the time to get up to express their feelings by creating beautifully-designed shapes around the entrances to their homesteads. This tradition, which spawns hundreds of years, is commonly known as the Kolam making. As early as 5am every day, women start painting the dark ground into bright and beautiful shapes as a way of bringing new energy and good vibration for the household, but also acting as a bridge between the inner and the outer world.
The process starts with cleaning with water the place where the kolam is to be drawn. The wet floor is then swept thoroughly to create an even surface. Kolams are generally drawn while the surface is still damp, so the design will hold better. Using chalk powder and white rock powder, it is amazing to watch how women trickle powder in a stream between their middle and index fingers, using their thumbs to guide the flow of the powder. The patterns range between geometric and mathematical line drawings around a matrix of dots to free form art work and closed shapes. It is reported that this used to be a matter of pride to be able to draw large complicated patterns without lifting the hand off the floor or standing up in between. The lines must be completed to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, which translates into shielding the home from evil spirits.
Previously, cow dung was preferred choice for laying the foundation for the kolam because it is believed to have antiseptic properties, hence, cleans and purifies the ground. Today, it isn’t commonly used partly because the cows have become few, but also, with urbanisation, many homes are located along tarmacked streets, and therefore, the kolams are drawn on the tarmac. However, previously, the cow dung provided the contrast with the white powder. Then, kolams were drawn using rice flour, as a way of beginning the day with an act of kindness by providing food for ants and other insects so they don’t have to walk too far and too long looking for a meal. The rice powder also invited the birds, thus welcoming other beings into one’s home and everyday life; a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence.
According to Ponnusamy Balasundaram, the founder of Mohanam Village Heritage Centre, kolam making evokes harmony, beauty and playfulness. You can call it the yoga of the woman. The patterns are determined by what is on the woman’s mind or heart. It averagely takes about 15-20min to accomplish one kolam, and once it is ready, it is an invitation or welcome of all into the home. Each creation is dedicated to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, prosperity, harmony and love. It is believed to protect the household from the evil eye. Through the day, the drawings get walked on, washed out in the rain, or blown by wind, new ones are made the next day.
To enjoy this special experience, Mohanam organises what it calls the ‘Morning village tour’, a sacred Mandala kolam ritual and village walk. The four hours’ walk gives you chance to participate in the kolam drawing as well as mingle and mix with the locals.
The tour gets you absorbed in traditional crafts such as stone carving, ceramics and terracotta work that the village artisans have kept alive despite commercial competition outside. You get to watch them demonstrate their craft.
During the tour, participants can feel, taste, hear and see the richness that this part of the Tamil culture holds. Visitors have the opportunity to listen to stories from the village to get an insight into the unwritten history, as well as experience much more talent among the villages that will give the visitors a memory for life. For example, the story of the village of Sanjeevinagar is a captivating one, getting to learn how it was born when Hanuman, the monkey god, dropped part of the medicine on Mountain Sanjeevi.
It is interesting to discover how Hindus, Muslims and Dalit live together amicably in this part of India. The climax is when you enter the Hindus temple and get chance to do Pooja.
The morning ends back at Mohanam with a delicious Tamil lunch, which is uniquely served on a banana leaf, as you watch children show off skills they have learnt at the centre.
This tour is one of the ways Mohanam tries to bridge the gap between Auroville and its surrounding community. If you are the kind who can’t walk, there is a bullock cart to give you a ride.
Every year, Mohanam also organises the Women’s Kolam Retreat and Pongal festival, a five-day experience that brings together local and global women to share the art of making kolams but also reflect on the culture of Tamil Nadu, which is under threat from globalisation.