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Tourists to any Indian state, especially to the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andra Pradesh will be greeted by elaborate designs at every door-step and even at the temple portals. Many a westerner has clicked photographs of these designs and some have even tried them out!  

In states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa, designs and patterns are displayed with colorful powder too. In Kerala during Onam festival, patterns are decorated with flowers and foliage! Even today, the devout Tamilian woman will decorate the entrance to her home with elaborate designs made of rice flour.  

Ancient India had its hub in the villages. Indians have always believed in the principle of living and letting others to thrive also. “Live and let live”, being the policy of Indians, it is one country that has not waged wars with any country and never ventured to conquer another kingdom. Hinduism itself is more a way of life than a religion, and is known to have never imposed its views on people of other faiths. On the contrary, Hindus have been tolerant people, permitting the myriad population in India to practice any faith of its choice.  

In villages, ancient Hindus depended on plants, herbs and nature to help in their sustenance. At the crack of dawn, after milking the cow, its dung is collected and the mud floors outside and inside of a home is cleansed with this dung! Even today, in villages this ritual is followed. Much to the astonishment of westerners, the cow’s dung has antiseptic properties and is used as an insecticide and pesticide. Mosquitoes are known to be repelled by the odor of dung.  

After cleaning the mud-floors with cow-dung, womenfolk drew elaborate patterns and designs with rice powder. The wisdom behind this ritual is that while dung repels mosquitoes and other insects, ants could feast on the rice powder and thus restrict their trail to the portico without entering inside the house! Ants forever in search of sweets and sugar granules were too tiny to be killed. Moreover, ants were regarded with reverence as Lord Ganesha’s favorite creature. Remember, Indians never resorted to killing mosquitoes, but repelled them with dung or neem oil or by planting neem trees. Similarly, ants got their quota of food and didn’t need to march right inside the house.  

Why rice flour?  

Paddy is the main food crop in South India and South Indians are primarily rice eaters. And ants are rice eaters too. Why burden the tiny ant with a grain of rice, when it can feed on rice powder to its heart content! Not only ants, but the rangoli drawn with rice powder is fodder for all pests and insects. This, way, Hindus kept all elements well-fed.   

However, today, with concrete floors having substituted mud-floors of yore, the humble rice no longer draws a fine line, thanks to the non-absorbing capacity of concrete! So, women, today mix rice powder with other chemical mixtures. And the intricate designs of yesteryears have been replaced by simple ‘kolams’(Rangoli) today, by the boardroom women.  

On festive occasions, when numerous relatives and friends would visit each other’s homes, South Indians mix rice powder in water and draw designs. Rice powder can be erased by several footsteps moving in and out of the house, but rice powder mixed in water lies imprinted on the ground for a longer time. Moreover, a festive occasion needs to be treated differently compared to an ordinary day.  

Did rangolis or kolams have a purpose? 

If you examine the myriad civilizations of the world, you would find that after the basic needs of humans were fulfilled like acquiring food and water, shelter, man usually tries to form a community. The proverb, “Birds of a feather flock together”, holds true. Man looked forward to huddling together with people of his kind or in groups. When people live in a society, a camaraderie develops and soon, man tries to ingratiate himself in the group in many ways, one of which is striving to be useful. Thus, early man used his talents to win the approval of his peers. It also helped him to bring out his latent skills to the fore.  

Similarly, women too were able to express themselves artistically through needle-work, drawing on the walls, tree-trunks or floors, remember, paper wasn’t discovered then! Staying indoors, women had something exciting to look forward to every morning when they could compete with their neighbors in drawing better patterns. Earlier, things commonly found in nature like leaves, peacock, birds, flowers etc were portrayed. However, not all women were talented artists, but had a meticulous eye for details. Thus, was born the time of drawing patterns with dots and lines.  

Even today, Indian women connect numerous dots to form intricate and complicated, but aesthetic patterns.  

 In the villages of Tamil Nadu at the crack of dawn and even towards evening, women sprinkle the portals of their homes with water and draw beautiful designs with rice powder or chalk.  

This practice not only cleans the portals of your home, but when drawn early in the morning, shakes off sleep from the eyes, gives women something to look forward to, to excel and compete with their peers, and to master complicated and complex designs. A woman’s ability and efficiency is compared to the way she draws the kolam. A symmetrical design, with the dots placed equidistantly, with the connecting lines show how balanced and efficient a woman is. The curves in a pattern if drawn artistically, again exhibit her artistic and feminine bent of mind.  

The myriad patterns just go to show her willingness to learn new things. The use of colors that are pleasing to the eyes reflect her mental state of either being vibrant, flamboyant and friendly or serene, calm and civil.  

A steady and unwavering mind usually has the ability to co-ordinate the same traits to the hand, which draw symmetrical patterns with straight lines or curves resulting in proportionate designs. A pattern drawn in a hurry, in a slipshod manner again indicates the woman’s state of mind then.  

An imaginative mind and a trained eye can actually discern the personality of the person who has drawn a pattern.  And yes, by mastering the patterns, one can master the mind too!  

When you want to bring forth the best design without a line or dot out of place, you would concentrate all your energies at that point there and your cares and worries are for a minute in the back of your mind.  

That apart, like sharing recipes, sharing secrets, taking and doling out advice and laughing at a joke, women exchanged patterns and indulged in healthy competition, which brought out the best in each.   

Also, as women were inside the house mostly, the drawing of rangoli provided the much needed exercise that bending and rising did. Men anyway physically toiled in the fields or outside. Also, the intricate patterns represent a maze, indicating that life is a maze and entering it and coming out of it, by touching every aspect of life can be a challenge, but can be done with equipoise, sensitivity, blending aesthetics with reason! There’s a method to every pattern as there is a method to problem solving in life. Following that method ensures you live life to the fullest. 

Why women and not men draw rangolis? 

For the simple reason that men spent less time at home, as they were busy outside, and women in their spare time had something productive to do, instead of idling and inviting the devil into their minds, women often draw rangolis. Many men who are artistically inclined do draw beautiful patterns too. 


Kolams for auspicious occasions 

South Indian marriages, thread ceremonies and other auspicious occasions and festivals are marked with the most elaborate kolams in the venue and outside. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, people entering the portals of an auspicious occasion will also be happy and light, it’s believed. The ‘kaavi’ that is of an earthen hue is a liquid used by crushing limestone and red brick powder is used to outline the border of the kolam. It’s believed that the kaavi prevents evil intentions of others from touching the happiness of the blessed people.  

Rangolis in the temple 

Temples are cleaned too and rangolis drawn in front of every sanctum sanctorum. This again is an act of revering the sacred chambers of the Lord, the basic reasons remaining the same. However, certain designs or yantras as they are popularly called are made for a specific purpose. Certain patterns usually signify the code of certain prayers or wishes and are drawn to achieve those like wealth, health, annihilation of enemies etc.  

When temple deities are acrid out in a procession around a village or town, women clean their portals and draw fresh patterns showing their reverence for God. It symbolizes that they have cleansed their heart and mind, erasing unwanted desires, anger, and despair and in their place have drawn beauty and have made space for the divine!


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