History & Purpose
The tradition of painting kolam is believed to have originated five millennium ago, during the pre-Aryan period. The kolam has a dual function - both religious and ornamental. In Hindu philosophy, the principle of dharma states that one should be of service to all, humans and animals alike. Traditionally, various motifs were drawn on the floor to feed insects with the design made out of edible grains and the dyes from vegetable colouring. This act of charity has been recommended in Hindu scriptures. The kolam is also drawn to welcome the Laksmi, the Goddess of Prosperity into the home. Its secondary purpose is to add aesthetic value to the Hindu home.
The simplest form of the kolam is the pulli kolam or "dotted kolam". Dots of rice flour are placed in a grid-like framework, which are then joined to take the form of a symmetrical shapes or a regular polygon. Symmetry was of key importance to the kolam artist as it denotes universal balance or the Hindu aspect of Shiva-Shakti.
Traditionally, it is painted at the entrance to a home and may be small although larger designs are known to have been painted at public spaces. The kolam is usually done by women, as it was the responsibility of the lady to maintain her household. In India, girls are trained to create the kolam from as young as six. Apart from training her to be a good housekeeper, kolam making also serves to fulfil physical, philosophical and spiritual aims. Physically, the woman has to bend at the waist and knees, stretching her hands, legs and upper torso out to draw the kolam. This stretches the woman's muscles and joints, especially so since the kolam is usually drawn at dawn. Philosophically, the bending of the body symbolises humility. Spiritually, the artist has to silently concentrate on her creation, as if meditating. Moreover, it encourages creativity.
Besides geometrical shapes, the kolam incorporates natural motifs like animals, fruit, flowers, and conches. Colours are bright and co-ordinated with a touch of intricate trimmings added to kolams. Besides rice flour, other ingredients used include rice flour flowers, beads, grains lentils, shells, tinsel, salt, saw-dust, fruits and vegetables. There are also tools to help women create their kolam, although the measure of a master is when the kolam is done free-hand. Today, the availability of tools to creates the basic shapes have reduced the artistry of kolam drawing.
A popular symbol painted in Malaysia and Singapore is the sahasradala padmam or "thousand-petalled lotus" as the lotus symbolises purity. Whilst vegetables and sugarcanes are popular symbols drawn during Ponggal, the "Harvest Festival", lamps would be the popular design for Deepavali.
Devika Bai. (1999, February 1). Bring this beauty to your home. The New Straits Times,
Heritage, p. 5.
Hafidah Samat. (1996, November 9). Kolam artistry. The New Straits Times, p. 1.
Saigan.com. Indian Heritage. (n.d.). Alangaraam: Kolams. Retrieved October 17, 2003, from
The information in this article is valid as at 2002 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.