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Rangoli: The Sacred Knot Work of India

Aug 18, 2007
When people think of knot work design what typically comes to mind are Celtic motifs from England and Scotland. Like most people I knew nothing of the knot work design coming out of the Buddhist and Hindu cultures of India until I spent a month in the South Indian city of Chennai.

Walking in the early mornings, I'd find intricate knot work patterns drawn out free hand with flour on the streets in front of homes. Initially, my question was, how did these designs, so common in Celtic knot work, end up in India?

These artistic scrolls were known as Rongoli, which is a combination of two words: "Ranga" means God and "Oli" meaning to be pleased. A devout Hindu friend explained to me that the designs were a daily offering, an artful expression of worship not only for the deities, but also for the birds that feast on the flour designs during the day.

The tradition is truly ancient. Hindu epics thousands of years old describe cities where Rangoli were drawn with camphor powder or multicolored stones. One myth tells how a woman's Rangoli picture of flowers was so realistic that it attracted bees.

The designs were also done with red earth and even depicted with milk carefully poured into a water vessel. The ability to draw these designs was considered so important that it brought status, particularly to a daughter-in-law seeking to impress her new mother-in-law. Even today, there can be a bit of playful competition between house holds.

The technique looks simple enough, but really requires a skill since it is done free hand. Sometimes I would come across people in the process of actually making the designs. Rangoli images start from a matrix of dots that are placed in a particular configuration. These are then connected by lines to create images.

I saw knot work motifs that were geometrical, and some that had floral shapes. I found out that it is also common during festivals to depict Hindu iconography, such as the conch, lotus or sacred Sanskrit letters. In Rajastan, which is in the northwest part of India, the Rangoli images are painted on the handles of swords or knives carved into animals Rangoli can also be found on coconut shell used as gifts during weddings. In many cases, since only a general outline is depicted which is not colored in, the images lean toward the abstract.

From an entirely different perspective, Rangoli designs can be seen as a form of mandalas. Mandalas are a sacred, archetypal symbol sometimes used as objects of contemplation in esoteric meditation practice. The basic idea is that zig-zags, circles, triangle or any shape are believed to have a certain effect on consciousness. Among the most elaborate mandalas are drawn by Tibetans, some of which have knot work motifs; particularly, the endless knot which is a well known Buddhist symbol representing eternality. Tibetans spend days creating detailed mandalas in sand before ceremonially wiping the image out.

Though the act of creating these patterns in ritualistic and domestic settings are layered with meanings rooted deeply in these cultures, it is safe to say that Rangoli teaches about reverence and the transience in our human experience. The beauty of the moment, the sunrise and the day, comes and it goes. By the end of the day, the Rangoli I would pass in the morning would be a faded shadow of its former glory.

As someone who is fascinated by the symbolic meaning of Celtic design, my visit to India helped me to see how universal knot work design is. For me, seeing the art drawn on the street was a fascinating and delightful experience which enabled me to gain a deeper appreciation of a fascinating culture.
About the Author
Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, www.celticjewelry.com, a jewelry company that practices socially responsible business.Marc authors www.fairjewelry.org a movement website for consumers and jewelers supporting green and fair trade jewelry. He also originated The Circle Manifesto,
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