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Ritual Tradition of Threshold Art

A woman creates a complex labyrinth kolam in Kanchipuram, India

A woman creates a complex labyrinth kolam in Kanchipuram, India, from Painted Prayers: Women’s Art in Village India by Stephen P. Huyler (1994). Photograph copyright Stephen P. Huyler.

Throughout the subcontinent of India, women of all ages, castes, and professions, perform the traditional art of threshold painting. It is known as muggu in Andhra Pradesh; rangoli in Maharashtra and Gujarat; chowk purana in Uttar Pradesh; mandana in Rajasthan; alpana in Bengal; chita in Orissa; and kolam in Tamil Nadu. Although the styles of design and frequency with which it is painted vary from region to region, the symbolic meaning of this art form is the same: it links Hindu women to the goddess Lakshmi whom they invite to depart her heavenly abode and rest momentarily at their thresholds upon an intricate rice flour diagram. In this manner, the Goddess brings good fortune, enveloping the home in an auspicious sphere of protection.

Women pride themselves on a vast repertoire of designs from simple geometric patterns to complex diagrams comprised of floral and symbolic motifs. Threshold art also serves to commemorate events occurring within the home. For example, general festive designs may be used to welcome a special visitor, or vibrant colors along with prescribed symbols and diagrams may be used to signify a holiday, marriage, or childbirth. Just as threshold art has celebratory functions, its absence may indicate a period of grieving due to illness or death.

In a variety of ways, threshold art reflects the Hindu concept of the interconnectedness of the universe. This is symbolized even in the use of rice flour as an artistic medium. It is said that the kolam is the “feeder of a thousand souls” providing nourishment to the smallest of insects throughout the day. Also central to Hinduism is the experiential act of devotion. The painting of a kolam is correspondingly devotional. It is an act of creation, in which ones personal relationship with the gods is most important. For in a fleeting moment the creation will disappear, vividly remaining only in the memory of the one who created it.

Written by Stephanie Kao.