These lines are equally fine with the absence of a dotted grid and soar unwavering towards the four corners of a square or as beams of an imaginary circle. Sometimes, their silent presence offered me the unique opportunity to savour a moment of eternity and at other times I had the impression I was beholding a miniature temple encircled by its enclosing walls, and in the centre, its sanctum."
Free translation from my book «Voyage dans l’imaginaire indien, Kôlam, dessins éphémères des femmes tamoules » Editions Geuthner.
Padi kolam, their many names
The name padi kolam can be roughly translated as "step kolam" as the word padi refers to the steps of a temple tank or pond. These line designs are also called kalyana kolam in reference to being drawn at marriages, or on any auspicious event, and Kanya kolam, a synonym for the Virgin Goddess. Manai kolam is another denomination (a rectangular wooden plank used for sitting during rituals). According to my friend Meenakshi, in olden days, manai kolam used to refer to a larger design drawn on the platform where a marriage took place.
The padi kolam are not simple artistic variations, their straight parallel lines grace the doorsteps of Shaivite Iyer brahmin houses, the kitchen, the puja-room, or the temples. They are drawn on all special occasions and on auspicious days like Tuesdays and Fridays especially in the months of Adi (mid-July to mid-August) and Thai (mid-January to mid-February).
Drawing a padi kolam
Padi kolam are drawn using parallel lines which cross over at right angles and start with a square figure and extend either in straight lines or curvy lines. In the same way as a yantra or a mandala, negative forces are prevented from entering the center by drawing four stylized gates facing the cardinal directions. The center of a padi kolam is never left blank, and we find one or several dots, diagonal lines, the sun and the moon, a pentagon or a star hexagon. To enlarge a padi kolam, we add a series of parallels lines from which new lines join the preceding ones. Around the design, lotuses, conches, or other ornamental motives complete the kolam.
Regarding this type of kolam, the explanations at times are confusing. Some women think that a padi kolam must start with a central square and look upon them as a miniature temple, a sacred pond, or as a fire altar structure. Other women believe that a padi kolam may start with any geometrical figure: square, two overlapping triangles for Shiva and Shakti, rectangle, circle, or a swastika.
Padi kolam, a miniature temple
The central square of the padi kolam bears a resemblance to the layout of Tamil temples, as well as sacred temple ponds. The parallel lines demarcating the contours of the kolam evoke the numerous enclosures and pyramid-like gates surrounding the sanctum. The padi kolam as a miniature shrine appears as a projection of the temple and its values, namely prestige, fame, and guarantor of the moral and social order. This scale model within the domestic sphere thus may express the idea of a feminine kingdom whose reputation is based on the morality of its women.
Padi kolam as a sacred tank
The padi kolam is also described as the steps of a sacred temple pond. The water body in temples are usually square in shape, enclosed with steps on four sides, and form a pattern around the pond. Why refer to a temple tank? We know that the Hindu ritual of "taking bath" is a sacred act linked to the concept of purification of the body and mind. Therefore, we might imagine that a padi kolam just like the temple tank fulfils this function to remove impurities and negative forces.
Padi kolam, kunda the sacrificial fireplace
The fire altar is an important part of Hindu domestic rituals or temple ceremonies. In ancient India, rituals called yajnas (rituals using fire as a medium to reach the gods), were patronised by kings and became increasingly elaborate. Agni is the "mouth of the gods" and as the personification of the fire of sacrifice, he is considered as the carrier of the oblation, and the messenger between humans and the divine. In such rites, Agni is created in a kunda; a sacrificial fireplace made of bricks, stones, or copper. The shapes may vary but the most common pattern is quadrangular.
The initial layout of some padi kolam, and especially the lines that make up the central square, refers to the brick enclosure of the sacred fire, sometimes superimposing on the kolam layout. It is therefore logical to find in the kolam repertoire of the Iyer Brahmin (Shaivite) families, diagrams in the shape of a sacrificial altar. During important ceremonies, the brick enclosure may be erected on a padi kolam which, by its intrinsic virtues, purifies the consecrated area.
Would it be ludicrous to draw a parallel between the lines of the initial square with a fire altar enclosure? According to Professor Charles Malamoud, the firepit is considered as the divine body of Prajapati, the great Creator of the Vedic period.
"The bricks are distributed into five layers but separated by strata of loose earth. The five layers of bricks are the parts of Prajapati which are immortal (mind, speech, breath, sight, and hearing), while the layers of loose earth are his mortal parts (hair, skin, bones, flesh, and marrow). The layers of brick are the four cardinal points and the zenith…"
Free translation of an excerpt in : Charles Malamoud, Cuire le monde, rite et pensée dans l’Inde Ancienne, Éditions la Découverte, 1989
A padi kolam for Chitragupta
During my research, I came across a domestic ritual dedicated to Chitragupta, the scribe and accountant of Yama, the god of Death, and guardian of the southern space. Chitragupta is assigned with the task of keeping complete records of every human being and deciding how they are to be reincarnated, depending on their previous actions. As part of the ritual during the Tamil month of Chittirai (mid-April to mid-May), a padi kolam is drawn open on three sides except on the south side. The design stands apart from the usual padi kolam by the presence of breaks on the lines. The kolam is drawn in such a way that it is open on three sides (north, east, and west) except the south direction which is the kingdom of Yama. The devotees welcome Chitragupta with the wish to be forgiven. Here, the padi kolam embodies the total amount of deeds and thoughts of all family members. Once the ritual is over, the kolam is erased.
Shivaite padi kolam
Article about Vaishnava padi kolam