“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays,” wrote the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. A prayer, though, doesn’t need words to come together. Prayer can take countless forms, beyond the repetition of specific words or the invocations of a higher being. In reality, prayer can be almost any act, and not only the metaphysical. Such an idea comes together, in all its plenitude, in a ritual known as kōlam. The word itself means, precisely, “beauty.”

Performed nearly always by women when India’s powerful sun comes up, kōlam are symmetrical patterns delineated on a previously cleaned stretch of ground, on streets, or on sidewalks. Geometric thresholds, they’re usually located outside the gates of homes or on nearly any surface of the ground. Colored dots or patterns guide the meticulous creative ritual. The artists use rice to outline them using just their fingers, and make designs which allude to, for example, lotus flowers, a symbol of Lakshmi (the goddess of prosperity, good fortune, abundance, love, and beauty). As material prayers, they may ask for all of that, but works may also be dedicated to the goddess of Earth, Bhudevi.

kolam1

In gestural terms, the creation of a kōlam is an act of supplication. The women bend their bodies at the waist, bowing down to the ground while drawing the patterns. In metaphoric terms, it’s also a way of portraying the intimate connection of humankind with home and the planet. That is, they reflect our relationship with nature. Finally, in more technical terms, kōlam is an exercise in geometry and symmetry (with all the sacred implications). For Hindu philosophy, the point is that here are the origins of everything, the beginnings of creation, and from these, the curved and straight lines simulating the creation of the world (humbly reflected on the street).

Symbols of the infinite, the incessant cycle of birth and death, there are many classes of kōlam. These can vary depending on the region where they’re made and on the personal tastes of the creator. Kōlam are also an aesthetic inheritance passed down from generation to generation. Competitions all around India even allow artists to show off their talents.

The phenomenon has attracted the attention of mathematicians from around the world as it’s an expression of science in the cultural field and one which touches on anthropology. For the artists, all this happens in an entirely unconscious way, but according to some experts, the practice is among very few indigenous rituals of the world to have influenced the Western mathematical tradition: among other things, it’s as an expression of some of the most fundamental principles. The impressive patterns have been the subject of study by computer scientists hoping to explain their very specific language.

The kōlam are today in a fight against time: fewer women devote their time to them and these increasingly live in smaller apartments without the right spaces for their creation. In their most spiritual versions, these patterns are born of a karmic need to feed the souls of others, to offer food to other creatures: the rice is eaten by birds and insects.

Like Buddhist mandalas, kōlam are meant to disappear. They thus speak, in their geometric language, of finitude: they’re a gesture, a meditation, a ritual movement, a thought, a form of generosity, and they’re invaluable as works of art, too.

Images: 1) Creative Commons – Thamizhpparithi Maari 2) premasagar – flickr

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays,” wrote the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. A prayer, though, doesn’t need words to come together. Prayer can take countless forms, beyond the repetition of specific words or the invocations of a higher being. In reality, prayer can be almost any act, and not only the metaphysical. Such an idea comes together, in all its plenitude, in a ritual known as kōlam. The word itself means, precisely, “beauty.”

Performed nearly always by women when India’s powerful sun comes up, kōlam are symmetrical patterns delineated on a previously cleaned stretch of ground, on streets, or on sidewalks. Geometric thresholds, they’re usually located outside the gates of homes or on nearly any surface of the ground. Colored dots or patterns guide the meticulous creative ritual. The artists use rice to outline them using just their fingers, and make designs which allude to, for example, lotus flowers, a symbol of Lakshmi (the goddess of prosperity, good fortune, abundance, love, and beauty). As material prayers, they may ask for all of that, but works may also be dedicated to the goddess of Earth, Bhudevi.

kolam1

In gestural terms, the creation of a kōlam is an act of supplication. The women bend their bodies at the waist, bowing down to the ground while drawing the patterns. In metaphoric terms, it’s also a way of portraying the intimate connection of humankind with home and the planet. That is, they reflect our relationship with nature. Finally, in more technical terms, kōlam is an exercise in geometry and symmetry (with all the sacred implications). For Hindu philosophy, the point is that here are the origins of everything, the beginnings of creation, and from these, the curved and straight lines simulating the creation of the world (humbly reflected on the street).

Symbols of the infinite, the incessant cycle of birth and death, there are many classes of kōlam. These can vary depending on the region where they’re made and on the personal tastes of the creator. Kōlam are also an aesthetic inheritance passed down from generation to generation. Competitions all around India even allow artists to show off their talents.

The phenomenon has attracted the attention of mathematicians from around the world as it’s an expression of science in the cultural field and one which touches on anthropology. For the artists, all this happens in an entirely unconscious way, but according to some experts, the practice is among very few indigenous rituals of the world to have influenced the Western mathematical tradition: among other things, it’s as an expression of some of the most fundamental principles. The impressive patterns have been the subject of study by computer scientists hoping to explain their very specific language.

The kōlam are today in a fight against time: fewer women devote their time to them and these increasingly live in smaller apartments without the right spaces for their creation. In their most spiritual versions, these patterns are born of a karmic need to feed the souls of others, to offer food to other creatures: the rice is eaten by birds and insects.

Like Buddhist mandalas, kōlam are meant to disappear. They thus speak, in their geometric language, of finitude: they’re a gesture, a meditation, a ritual movement, a thought, a form of generosity, and they’re invaluable as works of art, too.

Images: 1) Creative Commons – Thamizhpparithi Maari 2) premasagar – flickr