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Indian Floor Art: The Origins of the Rangoli

Rangoli: A Celebration of Art, Culture, and Spirituality

Amidst laughter and festivities, bright lights and vivid hues, a child sits next to their mother and takes in the mesmerising process of creating a Rangoli floor painting. The mother, an expert, deftly creates patterns of coloured powder by manipulating it between her forefinger and thumb. Seldom do men gather around a rangoli; the process is traditionally reserved for the wives and daughters of the Hindu household.

Today, times are changing, and so are beliefs and techniques. Let’s take a look at the origins of rangoli art, its old traditions and its recent innovations.

The Story Behind Rangoli Art

Rangoli
A puja Rangoli. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest mythological reference to Rangoli is found in Chitra Lakshana, a thesis on Indian painting. In one of its stories, a king mourns the death of his high priest’s only son. He and his subjects pray to Lord Brahma and seek his divine intervention. Lord Brahma instructs the king to draw an image of the boy on the floor. He then breathes life into the image. This is the earliest reference to Rangoli, or floor art, in Indian epics.

The Ramayana also makes several references to this art form. The practise of drawing colourful lines is believed to invite positive energy and repel negativity. The people of Ayodhya drew Rangolis when they welcomed Rama back from his exile. However, the most popular allusion to the rangoli is the Lakshman Rekha. Some people believe that during the exile, when Lakhsman left Sita to go in search of Ram, he drew a ‘Lakshaman Rekha’ a protective barrier that keeps negative forces outside the line.

Alter Origins

Rangoli
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In another folk tale, a woman named Lopamudra was married to Rishi Augustya. She was a renowned sage who wrote two portions of the sacred Rigveda. Lopamudra wanted to design a new form of worship for the gods. So she asked the five elements of the world to provide her with colours that she could paint with. She found these colours within the Panchatatva, or the five elements: the sky, water, wind, earth, and fire. She then used these colours to prepare beautiful rangoli designs.

Another story tells of Sudharma, a pious man who was unable to concentrate during prayers and meditation. He approached his teacher, Rishi Vairata and asked for his advice. The rishi told him to visit a nearby quarry and collect stones from there. After that, he must crush these stones into powder and use it to paint patterns and religious symbols on the floor. He would wake up early, have a bath, and draw various designs like the sun, moon, swastika and other sacred objects at the threshold of his house. As his concentration improved, his neighbours noticed the change in his demeanour and began to imitate him.

The Medium, Mythology, and Method

Rangoli
Rangoli made with oil paint. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two main types of Rangoli are practised today: dry and wet. Dry rangoli traces back to Lopamudra’s drawings of sacred symbols. The wet version is believed to originate from an instance in the Ramayana when Sita first fell in love with Ram.

She used ground rice paste to make patterns on the floor and offered a prayer to the goddess Gauri to grant Ram as her husband. This version is not very popular today, but women who practise the Bengali Alpona art still use rice flour paste to create floor paintings.

Many materials are used in rangoli art. Most artists use whatever is readily available to them. Artists in urban areas buy whatever colourful powder is commercially available. Powdered limestone, quartz, mica, and coloured sand make up the majority of the popular coloured powders used in contemporary rangolis. Of course, some still prefer traditional materials like red ochre, flower petals, and coloured rocks.

Earlier, people used natural pigments to create rangoli designs. The use of rice flour was especially popular as it aided in the Hindu commandment of Bhut-yajna. This belief is central to many floor art forms of India.

The Rangoli’s Sacred Significance

A flower rangoli. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, rangolis have come to hold immense spiritual significance. They symbolise positivity and joy. People believe that drawing rangolis keeps evil forces outside the house and serves as a form of protection against bad luck. Thus, rangolis bring good luck and also act as a welcoming symbol for Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. A Hindu household with a clean entrance and a rangoli is believed to welcome good luck.

The concept of Shiv-Shakti, or perfect balance and symmetry, is an important concept in traditional rangoli designs. It is said to create and trap chaitanya, or energy. Hindu yantras (similar to mandalas) are also powerful rangoli symbols.

A Reflection of Culture and Tradition Through Design

A rangoli prepared during Diwali. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rangoli designs are diverse, reflecting the unique traditions, folklore, and practices of each region. They are heavily affected by regional art forms as well as local rituals and traditions. Rangoli designs range from simple geometric patterns to intricate images of deities and flower patterns. Depending on the occasion and the artist’s preferences, these designs also include flower petals and local flowers like marigold. On Diwali, small clay lamps or diyas adorn most rangoli designs.

Although rangolis were originally restricted to women, nowadays men can practise this art form as well. Rangoli designs get more elaborate during weddings, festivals, and special occasions. These special rangolis contain many different types of materials like flowers, rice flour, etc.

Traditionally, rangolis were drawn daily, but now the art form is reserved for special events, especially in urban areas. While creating large-scale, elaborate designs, a group of artists work together to create a single rangoli.

Styles and Motifs of Rangoli Art

Rangoli
A peacock rangoli. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Natural motifs like leaves, petals, flowers, and feathers are some of the most common Rangoli designs. Geometric patterns and religious symbols add a sacred touch to the rangoli’s aesthetic beauty. Nowadays, designs of peacocks, the sun and moon, and other similar patterns are extremely popular as well.

Modern variations include synthetic colours, red brick powder, and even ready-made Rangoli patterns through stencils and stickers. While such innovative designs make Rangoli art accessible to everyone, they also cause a decrease in the number of people who practise the traditional techniques of the art form.

Interested in learning more about the origins and designs of Indian floor art forms? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more!

Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app. Check out these similar blogs from our Indian Floor Art Series:

Indian Floor Art: A Deep Dive Into 6 Diverse Art Forms

Alpona: The Artistic Evolution Of A Folk Art Form

The Spiritual Significance Of Kalamezhuthu Art

Mandana Art And Its Symbolism

The Kolam: An Aesthetic Yet Mathematical Art Form

Exploring The Spiritual Art Form Of Sanjhi Art

By Melissa D’Mello

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