The art of floor decoration commonly known as rangoli, in India is known by different names across India, alpana in Bengal and Assam, aripana in Bihar, mandana in Rajasthan, rangoli in Maharashtra, chowkpurana or sona rakhna in Uttar Pradesh, kolam in Tamil Nadu, and muggu in Andhra Pradesh. Some of these words are rooted in vernacular languages whereas some have their origin before the Aryan era.
Welcoming rangolis outside a home (Image source)
Rangolis are not mere decorations for beautifying homes. They are welcoming signs; expressions of gratitude, because of the belief that these decorative paintings keep a home, city or village safe and prosperous and the cultivated land fertile and fruitful.
The rangolis were not only adoration and ornamentation of the earth which sustains us, but equally a ritual invocation of the Gods for acquiring their blessings, thus making these floor designs a visual prayer created on the earth. Drawn with rice powder, lime or chalk, the process of creation is as important as the finished form. The designs drawn thus on the floor have a magical power and presence. They were used as welcoming signs at the entrance of the house, for a guest must be welcomed with grace and elegance. Beauty being equated with godliness, it was also the symbol of good omen and therefore is associated with every phase of life. These universal patterns and symbols were created and revered during rituals.
The floor paintings have also been used as protection against evil spirits. While drawing these rangolis special attention is paid to the fact that the entire design must be unbroken and must not have any gaps for an evil spirit to enter.
Visual styles and motifs used in rangolis:
Examining the visual styles of the rangolis and some of the commonly used motifs across the country gives one insights to their existence and context.
The rangoli designs can be divided into two main categories based on appearance and regional application i.e. the ones drawn in the mountain terrains and the others in the plains and the fertile regions of the country.
Akrriti Pradhan (geometry based) rangolis are practised in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra while in Bengal and Bihar Vallari Pradhan (floral based) rangolis are practised. Akriti Pradhan designs are found predominantly in mountain terrains where as Vallari Pradhan designs were predominantly found in the Gangetic plains respectively. Distinct from these two major categories, there is another group of rangoli designs in the South, which is ‘floral – geometrical’. The floral designs are usually connected with the socio—religious practices, while the geometric designs are connected to a central motif concerning a particular deity.
Geometry based rangolis (Image source)
The white paintings on the mud walls and the courtyard are done by the Meena Tribe who reside in the Aravalli Hills of India. This is the Mandana tradition of painting practiced all over Rajastan.
This is a tradition passed on from generation to generation, handed down from mother to daughter in the women of the tribe. This is done on the mud walls and floors of their homes, keeping time with recurring festivals and the changing seasons.
Mandana when created on the mud walls is like a form of storytelling through illustrations.
Mandana rangolis of Rajasthan on walls as well as the floor of a dwelling.
It is believed that the practice of these floor paintings existed before the Vedic age and was fundamental to life. The symbols used conveyed the complex philosophical concepts and the rituals they were used in enriched the fabric of daily life. With the spread of the beliefs and practices of the Indus Valley culture the geometric designs became absorbed into the contemporary rituals, not as meredecorations but as profoundexpressions of devotion.
It is believed that the first visual traces of rangolis were found in one of the seals of Mohenjo-Daro in a geometric form that resembled a mandala. The word mandala comes from a Sanskrit word that means - circle and mandalas can be recognized by their concentric circles and other geometrical figures. Mandalas are far more than sacred geometrical figures; they are rich with symbolism and sacred meaning like the container of the universal essence. A mandala when created becomes a sacred area that serves as a receptacle for the Gods and Goddesses and a collection point of universal forces. It is believed that a person by mentally entering a mandala and proceeding to its centre is symbolically guided through the cosmos to the essence of reality.
Mandala (Image source)
At the core of a mandala is the circle. (Image source)
A Shri Yantra mandala (Image source)
In the rangoli elements, the bindu or the point, symbolizes the origin from which everything emanates, and into which everything merges. The trikona, a triangle, represents the male and female principles operating in the universe. The catuskona, a square, represents stability. The pancakona, the pentagon, is the symbol of the five elements, earth, air, fire, water and ether. The satkona, the six-pointed star or hexagram, is the male and female triangle symbols interposed, and is often used to worship the goddess Lakshmi. The astakona, octagon, is the symbol of protection, assigned to the god Vishnu. The chakra, or circle, symbolizes life and growth.
Rangoli with triangles, tridents, and petals.
Rangoli with the celestial symbols-sun, moon, conch, Lord Ganesh. (Images source)
A traditional square shaped aipan form of rangoli with multitude of swastikas in the centre.
The mandana designs of Rajasthan have close similarities with the geometrical motifs, like triangles, squares, circles, swastikas, chess board patterns, multiple horizontal bands and wavy lines such as those appearing on the chalcolithic pottery type of the Indus Valley (circa 3000 BC). In fact, fish with wings, conch, scorpion and navagraha etc are motifs in alpana of Bengal that dates back to Indus Valley Civilization.
A rectangular aipan form of rangoli used as a border with the conch and footprints.
A rangoli with a conch as a central element.
In Hindu theology the earth is revered as the most sacred - as a nourisher, giver, sustainer and a protector. It is also adoringly referred to as mother earth and venerated in many different ways; hence the rangolis are made on the floor. Also of all the creatures that live underground, the snakes known as Nagas are of great significance to the Hindus. A universal symbol, the snake is a complex symbol, simultaneously linked with life and death, light and darkness, good and evil, venom and cure, preservation and destruction. A Vedic lore says that Nagas once rolled on grass on which Amrit, the nectar of immortality was once kept. Hence they have the ability like the earth to renew their fertility by replacing old skin with new. So they are revered as symbols of change, renewal and regeneration and are worshiped for progeny, prosperity and health. One of the most significant symbols used in Hindu religious rituals and adopted in some rangoli forms – the Swastika has its origin in the snake.The swastik, or swastika, is the symbol of four cardinal points, or the cycle of the sun, symbol of Brahma, symbol of Buddha, and good luck, and is frequently depicted in floor decorations.
A tree shaped aipan form of rangoli with the auspicious swastika, footprints and other elements. (Images source)
A rangoli with a swastika as the main element.
A decorated swastika in the aipan format of rangoli. (Images source)
Floral representations became popular with the spread of the Vaishnavite cults along the Gangetic plains. Among the deities who are worshiped, Lakshmi is considered all over India as the goddess of abundance, fertility, and prosperity. Most of the household rangolis by Indian women are dedicated to her. Vishnu and Lakshmi are worshiped using motifs which symbolise the attributes of preservation, love, abundance, fertility and prosperity. Thus, plants, creepers, flowers etc. as motifs have predominance in floor paintings dedicated to these two deities. Lotus – the flower associated with both these deities, symbolises all the best things that can emerge from the mire of life. This is used with four, five, eight, nine, ten, sixteen or thirty-two petals as per the design requirement. All these numbers also have some occult significance.
Another most frequently used motif in rangolis is the footprint or the paglya. This indicates the arrival and the presence of a compassionate deity into the dwelling. Rangolis are specifically drawn to create a location within temporal space to accommodate the presence of a deity, and the footprints indicate a “landing spot”.It is for this reason that the foot prints figure in most of the types of rangolis all across India. They are most commonly used to invite Goddess Lakshmi during Diwali or Lord Krishna during Janmashtami.. Some rangolis have a series of footprints, indicating the path a deity should take to come into the sacred space.In Bengal, foot-prints are drawn on the ground as an integral part of alpona designs and usually these are attributed to Lakshmi. In Bihar foot prints appear on a long chain of lotus flowers drawn on the ground during ritual performance. The paglya or footprint designs are very popular amongst the womenfolk in Rajasthan that they are attracted more to the paglyas of Lakshmi than to the charanas (foot-prints) of Vishnu. During Diwali, the most elaborate rangoli decorations incorporate the paglya designs. The belief that Goddess Lakshmi dwells only bright and well decorated areas and not in the dark ,is what makes the women take pains to decorate their homes during Diwali with superb rangolis that surpass those found during other festivals. In south India the tradition is to draw the footprints of Goddess Lakshmi and then harmoniously juxtapose it by Lord Vishnu’s.
Foot prints are the key elements in these aipan format of rangolis. (Images source)
The pot, representing the container of personal wealth is also a popular motif. A pot represents wealth that is contained within the confines of civilization. It is not free wealth that exists in nature, but that which has been claimed. Purna Kumbha as it is also known is an ancient Hindu symbol that represents the pregnant mother goddess, a deity worshipped as harbinger of good—fortune and fertility and is regarded as an auspicious symbol.
Kalash/ Purna kumbha in a rangoli.
The designs used in rangolis are symbolic and common to the entire country, and can include along with the geometrical patterns of lines, dots, squares, circles, triangles also the swastika, lotus, trident, fish, conch shell, motifs from nature- peacocks, swans, mango shapes, creepers, leaves, trees, flowers, animals and anthropomorphic figures, celestial symbols such as the rising sun, moon, stars, zodiac signs, holy symbols like Om, mangal kalash, chakra, a lighted Deepak, trident, "shree", etc. These motifs are often modified to fit in with the local images, symbology and rhythms.
Peacock as a central element in rangolis :
The rangolis in different parts of India differ not only in forms and colours but also vary in frequency and occasions. In Bengal and Rajastan, it is not necessary to draw an alpana design every day. The rangolis are mainly drawn on Purnima, Ekadashi, Amavasya, Pradosh days and on some festival days. Like in Bengal, in Rajasthan too, the floor paintings are drawn on occasions related to marriage, naming ceremony, first rice eating ceremony or the sacred thread ceremony. On festivals or auspicious occasionslike Diwali, Holi, Makar Sankranti, Sripanchami (Saraswati Puja), Laxmi Puja, Prabhodhni Ekadashi, Maha Ashtami Puja, Raksha Bandhan, Pongal etc such floor paintings are drawn. On these occasions the cow dung is spread on the floor where the pujas are to be performed and then decorated with suitable rangoli designs.
Unlike Bengal and Rajasthan, in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Southern Peninsula rangoli making is practiced daily. Early in the morning, every day the women in these regions clean a little space on the outer side of the entrance gate, or the threshold to their homes and make the rangolis . Usually a swastika is created in Gujarat,whereas in South India kolams or muggulu are drawn. In Maharashtra the rangoli is drawn in the area around the Tulsi plant and also around the place where the food is served.
Pongal/Makar Sankranthi rangoli with all the elements related to the festival- kalash, sun , the decorated bull’s head, sugarcane etc.
A Diwali rangoli with swastika, kalash and other auspicious symbols.
Janmashtami rangoli with a stretch of decorated footprints leading to the pooja altar.
These decorations are transient and ephemeral in nature lasting only a few hours at the most before being worn off by the activity of people or weather. This is similar to the Hindu belief that the body is transient and the atma or the soul, which lies within is what is permanent, and is the real self of man. One way to acknowledge this transience is by celebrating transience itself- by creating the transient art of rangoli .This ephemeral art also echoes the beautiful but ever changing nature around us.
This ritual art form has been passed down from generation to generation and is a common thread that unites the innumerable cultures of India, people who are otherwise divided by race, language, caste, religion, and occupation. In a society dominated by men, rangoli is the inheritance and artistic expression of the woman through their own techniques and symbols – prayers painted or ‘written’ from the heart.
The floor paintings employed many symbols, which represented a way of seeing, a different perception of life. But with adva ncement in technology, mechanized living, and changing social structures this formal ritual is slowly losing its original meaning. The concept of viewing the cosmic forces with awe or reverence and drawing rangolis with a prayer in the heart are slowly going away at least in urban India, except on certain religious functions or festivals.