those people, and these,
and these others in-between,
this thing, that thing,
and this other in-between, whichever
being all of them,
he stands there.
The God in Nammalvar’s hymn (or rather, A. K. Ramnujan’s translation of it [9, pp. 120-121]) is a god of thresholds. The threshold is of enormous interest to the Tamils. For example, the classical corpus of Tamil poetry is traditionally divided into akam (interior) poems and puram (exterior) poems . The kolam is but one of the many manifestations of that interest
Marcia Ascher’s description of the kolam is succinct and mostly accurate:
Traditionally, the women of Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India, sweep their thresholds every morning, sprinkle them with a solution of cow dung and water and cover the area with elaborate, symmetrical figures using rice powder. They trickle the rice powder in a stream between their middle and index fingers, using their thumbs to guide the flow of the powder. According to tradition, the cow dung cleans and purifies the ground, and using the rice powder begins the day with an act of kindness by providing food for ants and other insects. Girls learn this kolam ritual from their female relatives, and kolam skills are viewed as a mark of grace and as a demonstration of dexterity, mental discipline and ability to concentrate. 
It is doubtful whether kolams are geometrical acts of kindness. It’s also doubtful whether kolams are purificatory acts. They could be; most things are usually lots of things. There are a great many ways to purify something in Indian tradition, but kolams are unique, more or less, to south India. What do the kolam-artists say when they’re asked why they draw these gorgeous graphs?
Fortunately, the anthropologist Lance Nelson asked that very question in his recent doctoral study of the kolam tradition . One of his respondents from Thilaikkudi village in Thanjavur District, a women in her fifties, explained that:
Bhumi Devi [earth goddess] is our mother. She is everyone’s source of existence. Nothing would exist without her. The entire world depends on her for sustenance and life. So, we draw the kolam first to remind ourselves of her. All day we walk on Bhumi Devi. All night we sleep on her. We spit on her. We poke her. We burden her. We do everything on her. We expect her to bear us and all the activities we do on her with endless patience. That is why we do the kolam. [7, pp. 273]
It seems almost churlish to question the matter further. Yet, I can’t help wondering. Why draw geometrical figures to thank someone? Why not chant a simple prayer or two? Why not heap a pile of rice if the intent is to feed ants and insects (wouldn’t the ants prefer a heap as opposed to trudging alone a maze)? Why aren’t people in the Eastern, Western, and Northern parts of India driven by a similar sense of remorse and gratitude? Why is the Ganges — equally beloved and equally abused — not thanked in a similar manner. What makes Bhumi-devi special? Besides, if gratitude is the point of the performance, why allow it to be summarily destroyed by the first person to cross the threshold? Indeed, why draw it on the threshold at all?
In particular, take a second look at the boy (figure above) drawing graphs in the sand. The boy’s from Malekula, the second-largest island of Vanuatu. He, like the women of Tamil Nadu, is also engaged in an ancient performance. Why are their drawings so similar?
The Republic of Vanuatu is an archipelago, about 1000 miles east of Australia; it is so small an entity that on most maps it is just a half-hearted pixel blurThat all changed recently. The “Islands of Fire” was the setting for one of CBS’s Survivor shows (apparently, it was taken for granted that the locals would survive the visitors).†. Malekula was the subject of intense anthropological interest during the threshold years of the last century. The reasons go a little deeper beyond the usual anthropological obsessions with bizarre kinship-structures, weird religions and tribal routes to sex (Marvin Gaye, 50 proof alcohol, lots of talk, sometimes even a little dancing). It had been realized that the MelanesianThe term that includes, among others, people from Fiji, New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands† sand drawings and associated myths had an uncanny resemblance to the labyrinth patterns and associated myths found in Crete, Central Africa, Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland. It was the complex of parallels — not just similarity in diagrams — that was intriguing. For some still poorly understood reason, megalithic cultures (roughly 1000 – 300 B.C.E) seem to have settled on the labyrinth as the key to the spiritual control of thresholds.
Consider this example taken from the work of the British anthropologist John Layard (1891–1974), the man responsible for triggering most of the interest in Malekula [4,5]. The “tic-tac-toe” figure on the left is from Malekula; the one of the right is a tattoo pattern from Tamil NaduIn India, tattoos are usually part of “tribal” culture; body paintings in the mainstream Hindu culture are usually of a non-permanent sort (mehndi, kajal, henna, sandalwood paste caste marks). However, tattoo designs are often used as kolam patterns.†. Layard thought the Tamil Nadu design “technologically degraded” as compared to the one from Malekula; the latter is a true maze, is produced by a single line and looks more complicated on the whole. Perhaps the “tic-tac-toe” pattern is just a coincidence; after all, it is only a variant on the basic idea of the square. The square is, well, square. Very well. How about this figure then, also taken from one of John Layard’s papers ? Ignore the horizontal and vertical dimension lines; they were added by Bernard Deacon, from whom Layard copied the drawing. The object on the left is from Malekula; the one on the right is the “pavitram” kolam. As such, the two figures are not identical. For example, the Malekula design can be obtained from a single line, the one from Tamil Nadu is made up of three sets of lines. But it’s curiously similar. It’s as if one figure is a remembered version of the other. The connection between kolams and Malekula sand-figures was not noticed by Layard (who was unaware of the existence of kolams), but by F. A. Richards. The latter had heard about the Malekulan figures at a meeting of the Cambridge Anthropological Club in 1927; he immediately sent Layard two Indian books filled with kolam diagrams. Also at that meeting was an Indian lady, one Mrs. Gnana Durai. In her words:
On October 19th, 1927, Dr. Haddon read a paper before the Cambridge Anthropological Club on the late Mr. A. B. Deacon’s investigations in Malekula, in which he referred to and showed examples of the geometrical diagrams which Mr. Deacon had discovered in that island. This at once recalled to my mind that analogous diagrams are constructed every day among the Hindus of the Madras Presidency. 
This cross-cultural pattern recognition suggests that there is a similarity between the figures. In any event, the more significant aspect of these diagrams is what they represent to their respective cultures. In Malekula, the sand-diagrams represent labyrinths marking the boundary between the end of one life and the beginning of the next. Only men are reborn, and their rebirth is in their hands, so to speak. As John Layard puts it:
… the object of the [Egyptian] labyrinth was in the first place to exclude the uninitiated from participation in the life after death, and in the second to exclude non-fertile or unlucky influences from the royal nuptials.
In Malekula, these one-time royal rites have become democratized to include the whole male population. Here, the mortuary labyrinth has been reduced to a geometric design drawn in the sand by a female Guardian ghost. As the ghost of the dead man approaches (for men only can attain future life) she rubs out half the design. The dead man must complete the design and walk over it before entering the land of the dead.” [4, pp. 117]
Layard argues that kolams retain much of this symbolism. They too are drawn on thresholds. They too are associated with transition stages, such as sunrise, birth, death and marriage ceremonies. It is the women who draw the kolams, and it is usually the man of the house who first walks over it, erasing what has just been drawn. Just as the physical mortuary labyrinth of Crete got abstracted out into a sand-figure representation in the Malekula culture, amongst the Tamil, the idea of the labyrinth got gradually displaced by the even more abstract notion of threshold. The diagrams were retained, but the interpretations changed, so much so that the current explanations for why the kolam is drawn have no resemblance to the reasons of the Malekulan native.
There are many other connections as well. The word “kolam” refers to a kind of dance in Sri Lanka, one involving masks and complicated steps. The Malekula also have masked dances in which they play out the shapes of particular sand-diagrams. So on and so forth. It really is an anthropological wet-dream.
Layard speculated, in passing, that both kolams and Malekula sand-diagrams were offshoots of a single megalithic culture, possibly of east or south-east asian in origin [4, pp. 118]. Recent genetic studies would seem to support this theory. Given the nature of genetic studies, the data could probably be tweaked to support almost any other hypothesis. For all we know, one of Thor Heyerdahl’s ancestors may have seeded the whole damn Melanesian world.
Of course, it’s always possible that disparate and widely distributed groups of people independently arrived at the same representations. Events and symbols are always perceived in the context of human space, human time and human experience. Who knows? Perhaps our common genetic heritage may well imply a compulsion for, say, labyrinth designs. In the threshold years of the last century, such compulsions were called archetypes, supposedly architectonic features of the human consciousness. John Layard himself became a Jungian psychologist in his later years.
Point is, even if human groups have very similar concerns (puberty, death, sex, etc.), there is no reason why they should reify similar representations to deal with those concerns. I find it much more likely that different groups of migrating people modified aspects of a once common belief system (“common” for historical — not psychological — reasons).
So it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that there are other cultures who’ve also institutionalized “sand-drawings.” The Navajo Indians (who learnt it from the Pueblo Indians) and the Chokwe in southwestern Africa (Angola, Zambia, Congo) are two outstanding examples. The Chokwe (pronounced, it seems, “chock-way”) have added the ingenious and elegant twist of telling stories as they draw the figures; the abstract diagram is the representation of a story .
The Chokwe sensed and practiced a mathematical truth. Every kolam is a sentence in some picture language. The mathematical study of kolams, initiated by the remarkable Dr. Gift Siromoney at Madras Christian College and his colleaguesBased on the references to kolams in the literature, Dr. Siromoney claimed that kolams were a relatively recent tradition, less than 500 years old. I think he was incorrect on this point. Kolams were a woman’s art, and as such, unlikely to have been of interest to male writers. For example, there are hardly any ancient/medieval Tamil books on the art of cooking or sweeping or washing clothes either. Siromoney is also unable to explain why women in south India — of all castes — should’ve suddenly developed a taste for abstract geometrical figures in the mid-15th century. Not only is Layard able to give an origins story, it also explains the puzzling, alternative meanings of the word “kolam” [4, pp. 178-180].†, is based on the theory of cycle and matrix grammars [figure on right is from Dr. Rani Siromoney’s lecture slides]. One of the simplest of Siromoney’s grammars consists of “actions” such as “keep going”, “sharp left turn”, “sharp right turn”, “right U-turn”, “left U-turn”, and so on. By the repeated application of about seven actions in a proper sequence, most kolams, but not all, can be produced. To draw a kolam is to “speak” a sentence from a picture languageAs usual, all this “useless” research turned out to be useful for solving problems in DNA recombination and machine vision [see the Siromoney website for details].†.
I’m glad to report the kolam tradition continues in Tamil Nadu. More or less. Traditionalists bemoan the introduction of stencils; the skill has been taken out of the tradition. There are dozens of different stencils; aeroplane kolams, sofa kolams, chariot kolams, you name it. Given unlimited rice-powder, ambition alone limits the imagination.
Can we end without invoking the greatest kolam artist of all? I refer to Jackson Pollock and his celebrated style of “action painting.” The artist has gone on record as saying that he was influenced by the sand drawings of the Navajo Indians . Thresholds cannot exist without difference, and any difference creates a threshold. About Pollock and the art of indifference, the art critic Edward Levine wrote:
The experience of a painting by Pollock is almost totally unique in art. In his drip painting we sense the almost complete abolition of difference. All lines are equal in value, all parts practically interchangeable so that we have a painting without a dominant direction and without beginning or end. The fact that Pollock walks around and “into” his painting as it evolves is reflected in the lack of hierartic value in this work. Foreground and background, right and left, up and down are hardly distinguishable.” 
Poor mad Pollock. The erasure of difference ultimately necessitated his own self-erasure as well; the painter and the painting, something here and something there, this people and those people and others in-between… being all of them, and perhaps in the end, nothing at all.
References: Ascher, M. The Kolam Tradition. American Scientist. 90(1). pp. 56. 2002.
 Durai, G. H. Preliminary Note On Geometrical Diagrams (Kolam) From The Madras Presidency. Man. Volume 29. May. 1929. pp. 77.
 Gerdes, P. Geometry From Africa: Mathematical And Educational Explorations. Mathematical Association of America. Washington, DC. 1999.
 Layard, J. Labyrinth Ritual In South India: Threshold And Tattoo Designs. Folklore. 48(2). 1937. pp. 115-182.
 Layard, J. Maze-Dances And The Ritual Of The Labyrinth in Malekula. Folklore. 47(2). 1936. pp. 123-170.
 Levine, E. Mythical Overtones In The Work of Jackson Pollock. Art Journal. 26(4). pp. 366-374. 1967.
 Nelson, L. E. Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 1998. Pingree, D. The Logic of Non-Western Science: Mathematical Discoveries in Medieval
India. Daedalus. 132(4). 2003. pp. 45-53.  Ramanujan, A. K. Collected Essays. Vinay Dharwadker, editor. Oxford India. 2004.  Ramanujan, A. K. Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. Columbia University Press. New York. 1985.