Kolam, the sacred design celebrating Margazhi in Tamil Nadu, is a creative manifestation of women’s visual grammar.
“Masanam marga-sirso ham,” says Sri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita when listing his opulence. In Tamil Nadu, it is called Margazhi — one of the most important months in the Tamil calendar, as it takes the greatness of Tamil culture to the zenith through many art forms. Of course, the most well-known element of this month for the residents of Chennai and other regions is the music concerts that are held in the sabhas of the metropolis. However, this is a later day phenomenon. The real significance of Margazhi, though, lies in its intense manifestation of multiple art forms, literary and spiritual traditions.
Let us start with kolams. The Margazhi month ushers in an informal competition between households over kolam designs, drawn at the entrances of their homes, on the streets. The contest is played in good spirit, never becoming a subject of envy. Kolam is different from rangoli. It is drawn by joining dots symmetrically that gives shape to aesthetically pleasing forms. Kolams can be abstract forms of flowers, birds, Shiva linga, chariots and Vishnu’s conch. Most are decorated with pumpkin flowers mounted on a clump of cow dung.
An insightful description of kolam has been given by, hold your breath, none other than Wendy Doniger, before she discovered the (academic) market value of being a shallow Hindu-phobic. She says:
“The women who make these rice power (sic) designs sometimes explicitly refer to them as their equivalent of a Vedic sacrificial hall (yajnashala). ...(T)he visual abstraction of designs such as the South Indian kolam is the woman’s equivalent of the abstraction of the Vedic literature, based on geometry (the measurement of the sacrificial altar — one reason why mathematics developed so early in India) and grammar (the central paradigm of order out of which all commentary on Indian sacred text develops). The rice powder designs are a woman’s way of abstracting religious meanings; they are a woman’s visual grammar.”
It is not an accident that John Samuel, who tried to reduce Murugan to a historical personality, and then Christanise him, and Seeman, who is trying to do the same in the political arena, are both Christians who try to use the Tamil identity politics to subvert Tamil culture and spirituality. In this, they are aided by cultural and spiritual illiteracy that has been created among Tamil Hindus by Dravidianist education system.
If one correlates the way this appropriation happens with the change in religious demography of the state, then one can understand how well-choreographed the evolution of Murugan-appropriation movement is with the demographic siege.
Between 1951 to 1971, Christian population in the state rose from 4.79 to 5.75 percent. It was during this time that the Dravidian movement described by a Christian Bishop as ‘a time bomb planted by the Church to destroy Hinduism’ rose to power. That also coincided with crackpot scholars releasing books, which claimed Christian origin for Thirukkural. By 1980s, the percentage was galloping towards 6 per cent and that saw the International Tamil Reserach Institution release a book claiming not just Thirukkural, but also Saivaite cannonical texts as being derived from Thomas Christianity. These academic attempts met with severe resistance from real scholars. The period between 1991 and 2011 saw a very rapid increase in Christian population and aggressive forms of evangelisation.
Now, from academically discredited crackpot theories of Hinduism being derived from, or a perverted form of Thomas Christianity, started becoming strong evangelical tools. Simultaneously, Christian leaders in seemingly secular Tamil chauvinist movements started claiming that Murugan was only an ancestor and not a divine deity. This has serious consequences. One can very well see how these fringe groups work ideologically and theologically in tandem with Christian evangelical strategies. Let us take a hypothetical scenario. Already, Christian demography can decide the political outcome in ‘parts of Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli and Dindigul in the middle; the Nilgiris and parts of Coimbatore in the west; Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram in the southeast; and, Tirunelveli, Thoothukkudi and Kanyakumari in the south.’ If the evangelical Church and ‘secularised’ Tamils in these pockets affect the victory of at least a few of the candidates of fringe elements, then they can start raising these totally unscientific, even pseudo-scientific theories in the legislative assemblies.
If these elements can also enter into administrative positions in HR&CE, then they can even conduct a Christian mass in a Murugan temple claiming that Murugan being just a secular ancestor, a Christian memorial service in his honour would not be wrong. The scenario may look, right now, hilarious, but then, which sensible person in seventeenth century would have thought that one day Ramayana would be interpreted in terms of races?
So Hindus, people belonging to a post-colonised, third-world religion need to fight against this siege at different levels with only one weapon. They have neither state support nor surplus from colonialism. Worse, they have to also face apartheid. So, the only weapon they have is their immense cultural and spiritual knowledge and heritage.
So who is Murugan?
In fact, one does not need a Doniger to tell that the kolams embed in and encode in themselves divinity and vedic yagna respectively. However, Nehruvian India and Dravidianist Tamil Nadu have often discouraged the study of such indigenous phenomena like kolam that we need a David Shulman or Wendy Doniger to tell even such simple truths about us, and thus transfer the power of narratives about ourselves to them.
Krishna being the process of yagna as well as its ultimate end is the personification of Margazhi, and thus kolams naturally start representing him through designs. Today, mathematicians are showing interest in these designs. In Chennai, Professor S Naranan, an astrophysicist for more than four decades, was inspired by recreational mathematician and maths-educationist in his own right Martin Gardner, and has been studying kolams for years. It was only before his eightieth birthday in 2010 that Prof Naranan, at the spur of the moment, sent his work to Gardner. Gardner, who at that time had stopped writing his famous column in Scientific American, was so impressed by the work that he responded saying had he been still writing he would have devoted an entire column for Prof Naranan’s work on kolams. As Sudhakar Kasturi, a well-known Tamil science fiction writer, showed this author, the Hemachandra-Fibonacci patterns Prof Naranan discovered in groups of traditional kolams can also be discerned at ancient temples in Tamil Nadu known for their architectural work.
Margazhi simply fills the front space of every household in villages and towns, which are not yet lost to values of the West or alien monocultural cults, with these enigmatic, geometric kolams embedding in them the divine.
In the early hours of the morning, young women sing Thiruppavai of Andal, the only woman among the 12 alvars, who, in praise of Lord Vishnu, proclaimed that this dynamic web of life as the body of Vishnu. Her celebrated Thiruppavai sung as wakeup-call hymns in the month of Margazhi (December-January), speaks of the agriculturist homestead, fish-filled paddy fields and the dynamic hydrological cycle. Vishnu is the lord of deluge and the very seed of all life forms. Thiruppavai can also be seen as the act of calling the person immersed in inner spirituality to serve the society guided by spiritual equanimity. Combining bridal mysticism with keen observations of nature and call for collective participation, the songs are perhaps unique in world devotional literature. Here, there is also a vibrant form of Hindu ecological thought, apart from the well-known advaitic basis of Hindu ecological thoughts as held by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess.
Traditional commentators have revealed in these hymns of Andal, without any text-torture or convoluted interpretations, various levels of interpretations, which are quite astonishing. For example, in the eleventh hymn, Andal stands at the doors of a sleeping girl companion and sings to wake her up, to join her and her companions to visit Vishnu. Here, Aandal describes the girl as a ‘peacock having snake-hood shaped hip’. Kanchi Prathivathi Bayangaram Annangaraacharya, in his commentary, points out that this description of a female has been done through a male’s eye by Andal. Here, he points out that such fluid gender transition moments are quite common in high emotional states as many males consider themselves as females with respect to Vishnu. The possibility of such a state, where the gender barriers become flexible, is hinted at here, says the traditional Vaishnavaite commentator. The fearless and in-depth treatment of the subject is astonishing to say the least. It also shows how the traditional Hindu approach is far more original and bolder than the shallow Freudian deconstruction the amateurish scholars from the West and their Indian copycats attempt at.
And we, of all generations, even a few decades ago, learnt these melodious hymns by heart as children and recited them every morning in the month of Margazhi. Surely, the hymns have the miraculous ability to grow with us once they were sown in the heart. Today, as Margazhi comes, kolams are there, but the pumpkin flower is missing. Thiruppavai is no longer taught as was done just two generations back. Gradually, we are diluting our heritage and Margazhi is becoming synonymous with the musical concerts of the city dwellers — with all its behind-the-stage power politics, not to mention the obsessive compulsion with secularism rearing its ugly head.