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RANGŌLI Rangōli in Sanskrit means "colored creepers"; as such, it describes an art form that was created in ancient India to decorate the mud-covered walls and the mud floors of homes with attractive and colorful floral designs. Rangōli initially referred to this art as practiced in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, but the term is now used to refer to any form of art drawn on the floor. Other types of floor art include kōlam and alpana. The former confined to the southern states, the latter to the eastern states.


Popular Rangōli designs, made with rice powder, charcoal, or chalk, are usually mythological figures, such as the elephant-headed god Gaṇesa, Lord Krishna playing his flute, Goddess Sarasvatī playing the vina (a stringed musical instrument), and Goddess Lakshmī sitting on a large lotus flower. Designs drawn from nature are also popular, particularly those that are mentioned in Hindu mythology, such as peacocks, swans, and the leaves of the pipal tree.

Traditionally, the materials used were powders made from natural ingredients such as rice (white), turmeric (yellow), turmeric mixed with alum (red), and indigo (blue). Today one can find fillers made from cereals and pulses (legumes), flower petals in myriad hues, and even synthetic dyes. The effect, when completed, is breathtaking. Although more accomplished artists will always manage to achieve the right proportions, balance of colors, and overall effect, even an amateur can produce delightful designs.

Rangōli artists have become more and more creative in modern times. The traditional floor designs were always flat on the floor, since very fine powders were used to fill the design. Nowadays, texture is added through the use of roughly ground and whole grains as well as tiny rocks, stones, and even bricks, giving the work a three-dimensional effect.

Rangōli designs are very popular during India's festive seasons. One of the most popular Hindu festivals is Navarāthri (the doll festival), a celebration of nine nights, in September and/or October. A beautiful rangōli is created outside the front doors of the house or in front of the family's display of dolls. Some families may even create a different design each day to symbolize the Hindu deity being worshiped on that particular night. These designs are usually small and simple, in proportion to the floor space available, but that is not necessarily the case, and large designs with highly intricate compositions have also been created. While smaller motifs may be drawn freehand, the large ones are often executed with the help of grid lines drawn on the floor in chalk. Rangōli motifs not only decorate homes and wedding and festival venues, but are also created in hotels and at receptions for dignitaries.


Kōlam designs, on the other hand, are composed of line drawings and are more geometric in pattern. Though less spectacular because they are often drawn with white rice powder, they are the pride of every South Indian home. A common sight in every village, town, and city in the early hours of the morning is that of the woman of the house bending over, deftly drawing the kōlam on the front porch or street. As the sun rises and fills the streets with light, the kōlam creations come to life. During the month of Margazhi (mid-December to mid-January), the center of the kōlam is decorated with a bright orange-yellow pumpkin flower to enhance the design, the contrast of the single yellow flower against the whiteness of the rice powder imparting an understated elegance.

In contrast to rangōli, which is created mainly on festive occasions, the kōlam is drawn every day of the year, except when there has been a death in the family or when there a family member is seriously ill with an infectious disease. The latter communicates to the neighborhood that one should avoid visiting the family until the kōlam reappears.

The rice powder that is used for kōlam performs the added humane function of feeding insects and birds, giving the family the satisfaction of doing a good deed for the day. One disadvantage, however, of using dry rice powder is that it is easily blown away when there is a gust of wind, leaving a rather untidy mess on the floor. A windswept kōlam could also be interpreted as a bad omen. Therefore, for special and auspicious occasions, a more permanent mixture is made by grinding soaked rice into a smooth paste. Using a wad of cotton cloth, dipped in the thick paste and held between the thumb and two fingers, designs are drawn by hand all over and around the entry and on the front porch. Once dry, there is no danger of it being wiped off. To make it even prettier, a paste of a special red brick, called kāvi, is used to outline the design, creating a pleasing contrast of red and white.

The kōlam is easier to draw than the rangōli, as it comprises lines joined to produce intricate designs with less effort. To enable even a novice to create well-executed designs, several devices are available to the modern practitioner. For example, there are numerous instruction books that show how dots drawn at regular intervals within an overall shape can be used effectively. By joining the dots, a beautiful mango bouquet or a temple with four gôpurams (steeples) can be drawn in minutes. Innovative shops sell templates for a variety of kōlam designs: slotted steel plates or rollers allow fine rice powder to flow through, resulting in pretty motifs. Also available these days are sticky plastic sheets with a kōlam design printed on them, ready to be peeled off and placed on the floor in front of the altar or the front door.

Modern Variations

Artists now use their imaginations to produce newer designs in both rangōli and kōlam. It is even possible to use water to make a rangōli, as demonstrated by one artist who filled a tub with water and spread a handful of powdered charcoal on top, creating a floating layer on the surface of the water. Next a variety of colored powders were deftly sprinkled over the charcoal layer, and a magnificent design was created. A well-known Indian dancer spread a sheet of cloth, which had the underside covered in red paint, on the stage and danced over it for some time; when the dance was over, she pulled away the cloth to reveal a rangōli in red of the elephant-headed god, Lord Gaṇesa.

Another unique floor art, a hybrid of rangōli and kōlam, is the malar kōlam (flower kōlam) of Kerala. Whole flowers, petals, and leaves may be used for this. The artist must first visualize the whole design and decide what colored flowers to use for the border, the center, and the fillers. Then, the artist draws the design on the floor or on a plastic sheet. Sometimes, moist sand is spread on the sheet and the floral decoration is made on the sand, filling it thoroughly so that no sand is visible at the end, creating the effect of a thick carpet. The beauty of the malar kōlam comes from the natural textures and hues contributed by the flowers. A common sight at receptions for important guests is the malar kōlam, created around the base of a large brass lamp, which the guest of honor lights to open the occasion.

Rohini Rajagopalan

See alsoFolk Art


Cartwright Jones, Catherine. Rangoli. Stow, Ohio: Tap Dancing Lizard, 2002.

Kamat, Jyotsna. "Rangoli: The Painted Prayers of India." Kamat's Potpourri. Available at <http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/rangoli

Maravanthe, Bharathi. Rangoli. Basrur Udupi, India: Samsevini, 2000.