The art of floor paintings has developed over the centuries with changes in the availability of materials and various influences in the art.

In India, every important festival has rituals associated with it, and each ritual has its appropriate floor design. The floor paintings thus have a sacred meaning, dedicated to various deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Prithvi, Nagapanchami, Diwali, etc. They are also done on auspicious occasions such as marriages, good harvest, births, and removal of evil from homes. The floor paintings are also done in front of the puja ghars (worship room) and occasionally along the route taken by the deity to the puja ghar. They are usually done free-hand using rice paste or auspicious colours such as red, yellow, green, blue, black.

The floor paintings are known using various names like Rangoli in Maharashtra, Mandana in Rajasthan, Alpana in West Bengal, Chowk in Uttar Pradesh, Kolam in Tamil Nadu, Kalam Ezhuthu in Kerela, Aripana in Bihar, Pakhamba in Manipur, Jinnuti in Odisha, Sathia in Gujarat, Likhnu in Himachal Pradesh.

According to the scholar Manu Desai, the pre-vedic folk myhths and legends were so fundamental and all pervasive, that they became symbols to convey complex philosophical concepts. This fusion resulted in the symbols and rituals which enrich and order the fabric of daily life.

The earliest evidence of floor paintings come from the seals of MohenjoDaro, Indus Valley Civilisation. The floor decoration in the seal was geometric in form and resembled a mandala. With the spread of beliefs and practices of the Indus Valley culture, the geometric floor designs got incorporated into the Aryan culture.

The division of motifs is a little deeper than it appears to be. In northern India, the geometrical designs, or akriti pradhan are predominant in the mountainous regions such as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and the southern peninsula. While the floral designs or vallari Pradhan could be found in the fertile Gangetic plains of Bengal and Bihar. Meanwhile in the southern regions of the country, floral geometric designs are more commonly found. The floral designs have a socio-religious base, while the geometric designs are connected to tantric or bhakti ideology.

The motifs include abstract and stylised flowers, fruits, trees, leaves, animals and birds, such as, lotus, fish, peepal tree, tulsi plant, etc. At other places geometric patterns, concentric circles with symbolic meanings have been created. The circle is a natural image, used to represent the universe, the medium through which the divine present themselves. The square is an artificial shape, which when drawn within the circle represents our culture. The upward triangle represents a mountain, symbolic of stability and the eternal male, or the purusha. The downward triangle represents the transient unstable physical elements, or the prakriti. Together the purush and the prakriti down the six-pointed star, a manifestation of the universe. 


Kolam is the only form of traditional floor art practised as an everyday ritual. Reference to Kolam can be found in the Tamil Alvar Bhakti saint Andal’s poem Natchiyar Thirumozhi. It refers to Andal sweeping the floor and decorating the doorsteps with kolam as part of her devotion to Lord Vishnu.

It is believed that the Kolam protects the house, which explains why it is done in a straight unbroken line forming loops and enclosures. Each enclosure is marked by a dot in its centre, which represents the mother goddess, also a symbol of fertility. the vermillion dot in kolam symbolises blood, a source of life.

Kolam includes intricate twists and curves which are vanishing due to the rapid urbanisation and the lack of space in city dwellings. The intricate designs of chikku kolam and neli kolam are rapidly vanishing, with only the older generation practising the art form.


Kolam (Photo credits: The Hindu)

Kalam Ezhuthu

Kalam Ezhuthu is the floor painting tradition predominantly found in the temples. It includes colourful and anthropomorphic images of gods and goddesses that are drawn on the floor of the Kalam, that is a central courtyard used to trash paddy in the temples. The images of Aiyyappan or Bhadrakali and other deities are painted using natural colours. Kamadeva, yakshas and yakshis are more common in northern Kerela.  Burnt paddy husk is used for black, turmeric for yellow, vermillion for red, rice powder for white and powdered leaves for greem.

Generally, the Pulava and Kurup community practise this art form. The painting is done within a square border and some paintings are given a 3-dimensional effect. The eyes of the deities are done after the entire painting has been completed. It is believed that life is infused in the paintings once the eyes are made.

Kalam Ezhuthu, Kerela

Kalam Ezhuthu, Kerela (Photo credits: The Hindu)


Alpana is drawn by the women in North West Bengal during Makar Sankranti. Since it is made occasionally, it covers a larger area and can be made in any desired shape. The most common motifs and designs in Alpana are millet flowers, farming tools, kitchen utensils and othe things associated with agrarian prosperity. A typical Alpana has a motif with concentric circles in the centres. This symbolises the granary in villages. Modern day Alpanas also include gas cylinders or stoves.


Alpana, Bengal (Photo credits: The Hindu)


Diwali is the common time to decorate walls and floors of their houses for the women of Meena community in Rajasthan. Mandana focuses on non-geometrical motifs such as tigers, peacocks, monkeys, cats and stylised Lakshmi feet.

The ground for mandana is prepared by cow dung mixed with rati, a local clay and red ochre. Lime or chalk is used to make the motifs. A piece of cotton or a tuft of hair is used as a brush. Rudimentary brushes can also be made out of date sticks, while thread can be used to make circles and triangles.

The architectural motifs in Mandana are first made by plotting the points. A set of three points is used to make a triangle, the receding patterns are made by plotting ten, eight, six, four or two points in decending order. Asymmetrical designs can be made by plotting nine, seven, five or three dots.

Mandana has almost limitless quality of extension, for any point can be connected to any other point. The central mandana is often surrounded by smaller motifs, which often consist of footprints.


 Mandana (Photo credits: Artist, Vidya Soni)

A common thread

The common feature of all these floor paintings is that they are used as a protection against the evil spirits. The significance of these can be traced back to the mythological epic Ramayana, where Lakshmana drew protective unbroken circular lines around their hut and instructed Sita to never cross them. They are also domestic art forms, not taught in schools or art institutions, but passed on from generation to generation. They form a common thread which unites the numerous cultures of India. They are ephemeral and are at a greater risk of being lost or forgotten.

 ~ Written by Misha Jaswal


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1 comment

  • Sen: October 25, 2022
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    Alpona facts are incorrect. Alpona is used regularly even at weddings, rice ceremony, different Pujas.

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