At the Sri Ramakrishna temple in Chennai, self-assured Maheswari is drawing kolam as a seva, or a ‘selfless service’. She attends all the important festivals at the temple, where her graphical offerings are admired by many temple worshippers. At a special event commemorating the birth anniversary of Vivekananda[1], I join her in this haven of peace in the very lively neighbourhood of Mylapore.

Sri Ramakrishna temple in Chennai

From the main entrance, the salmon pink temple looks like a giant elaborate wedding cake. However, in contrast to Dravidian temples, it is almost austere and anyone of any religion or faith is welcome to come meditate here. As night falls, Maheswari heads to the chapel where a statue of Sarada Devi, the spiritual companion of Ramakrishna, is kept. On the black floor, three opalescent kolam gradually appear, turning white as they dry. Maheswari has chosen this wet technique which is especially popular during festivities because they last for several days. The technique consists of holding a piece of cotton fabric dipped in a milk-like mixture made with rice flour and water in the hollow of the hand. The thumb presses it lightly, causing the liquid to run between the slightly spread fingers. Two or three parallel lines can be drawn at one time in this way.

‌With this graphical homage complete, she makes her way to the temple courtyard where projectors illuminate the spot where she will create a much larger kolam design. She spends several hours drawing square shapes with long undulating movements. These squares are juxtaposed, creating first a cross, then a square, bordered with imaginary doors placed at the four cardinal points. The rice water glistens in the light while the speakers blare devotional hymns, or bhajan. A crowd gathers around Maheswari, making appreciative noises and lifting their heads and both hands to the sky as if to say: “this woman is blessed by the gods”. The kolam is complete when she outlines the outer edges of the star-shaped kolam with a red powder made from hematite, or red oxide, called kavi.


[1] Swami Vivekananda was born on 12th of January 1863 in Kolkata in the state of West Bengal. Brought up in an affluent family, he was fascinated by sacred Hindu texts from a young age. When he was 17, he met Ramakrishna who became his spiritual teacher. Renouncing the world, Vivekananda took over the ashram at the death of his guru. He made a sensation a few years later during his speech presented at the World expo in Chicago. He embarked on a world tour to share the teachings of Ramakrishna. After returning to India, he founded the Ramakrishna mission which  aims to help the underprivileged.