Feeding a Thousand Souls

Women, Ritual, and Ecology in India, An Exploration of the Kolam

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Vijaya Nagarajan
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Every morning women in India rise and create elaborate and beautiful designs on the ground outside their doors, only to see those designs worn away as the day progresses. Reminiscent of Buddhist and Navajo sand paintings (the latter pointedly called “places where the gods come and go” in the indigenous language) because they are intended to be temporary, the kōlam tradition was practiced by author Vijaya Nagarajan’s mother, giving her thought-provoking ethnography of the art and ritual a charmingly personal quality.

Indeed, the first forty pages of the book, Feeding a Thousand Souls, trace her personal journey from child of a kōlam maker, taking no particular notice of the practice, to a student and ultimately professional researcher on the subject. This makes Nagarajan’s project also an autoethnography, with obvious significant meaning for her. In the third chapter she begins to examine the ritual form of this polysemous action, which simultaneously creates sacred space, invites one or more gods/goddesses, protects against the evil eye, serves as a visual-material prayer, facilitates festivals and celebrations, marks a threshold, and, as she will discuss later, feeds a thousand souls.

The notion of thresholds, and thus obviously of Victor Turner’s theory of liminality, is the subject of the fourth chapter, as Nagarajan explains that kōlams are made to mark both spatial and temporal thresholds, such as the doorways of “shrines, houses, and temples and the edges of streets, trees, and stones” as well as “dawn and dusk, the month of the winter solstice, [and] the rice harvest festival of Pongal” (75).

Also signaling auspiciousness, they are associated with women’s life events like marriage and childbirth; however, the absence of a kōlam suggests inauspiciousness as in “the onset of menstruation, illness, or death” or simply “laziness, poverty, or a lack of interest” (75). They are, in short, ritual markings, inscriptions on the world, compared to the pottu or red dot on a woman’s forehead.

After the fifth chapter, which discusses the mythohistorical origin of the kōlam attributed to a ninth-century female Tamil saint named Āntāl, the sixth chapter examines the design features of traditional kōlam patterns. Some constructed out of dots, some curving or square, they express complex mathematical and fractal relations, what she calls “embodied mathematics” in the subsequent chapter.

Before getting there, though, Nagarajan introduces the modernization of the kōlam in terms of design and material. Traditionally fashioned out of rice powder and thus merely white, some contemporary kōlam artists use cheaper materials like stone powder or even substitutes like acrylic paint or adhesive stencils. The modern kōlam may also feature more color and even representational images—including images from popular culture like Disney cartoon characters. Not surprisingly, these changes are controversial and resisted by traditionalists, who also understand the art form as more than a visual display.

As mentioned, the seventh chapter dives into the embodied mathematics of kōlam-making, as women perform the gestures that result in the ornate and (traditionally) abstract designs. But Nagarajan returns in the eighth chapter to changing practices in her description of contemporary kōlam competitions. In competitions—certainly not a traditional aspect of the ritual—the clash of age and gender standards is apparent, not to mention the diffusion of global and corporate influences, like the images and references to Colgate toothpaste integrated into the entries during a competition sponsored by the Colgate Palmolive company.

In the remaining chapters Nagarajan takes a turn toward a deeper understanding of Tamil epistemology and cosmology as seen through the kōlam. The ninth chapter gives us the quite anthropologically sound concept of “embedded ecology,” recognizing that “many of our ideas about the natural world are embedded and steeped in cultural, ritual, and artistic forms” (205).

Specifically, the author clarifies why a spiritual relationship to the earth might not produce an ecological/conservationist mentality: in the case of Tamil Hinduism, the idea that the gods and their avatars, like the rivers, are incorruptible and in fact can swallow and purify any amount of corruption means that humans do not have to worry about polluting the environment. She further qualifies the romantic idea that other religions possess a sacred sense of the earth with the concept of “intermittent spirituality,” that is, “the tendency to hold the earth as sacred during specific rituals, and then to drop that deferential attitude and practice in the midst of the practical demands of daily life” (216).

However, as the final chapters reveal, many Tamils do worry about the state of the earth, lamenting “the illness of the planet” (225) and the decline of human ritual responsibility and generosity. At the heart of a nexus of ritual practices, we return to the fundamental notion of kōlam as “feeding a thousand souls.” Literally, drawn with edible rice flour, the design on the ground becomes food for a myriad of creatures—birds, insects, etc.—establishing a bond of reciprocity and generosity, and transferring auspiciousness, between humans and non-humans. When people substitute flour with stone powder, paint, or decals, or when they stop making kōlam altogether, they no longer feed the world, and the world suffers for it.

Feeding a Thousand Souls is at once a smart and sweet book. It is sweet because it winds around the author’s own experiences and her scholarly journey back into her culture of origin. It is smart because it carries us along unexpectedly from her life through an ever-expanding Tamil Hindu worldview that is encapsulated but hardly contained in one art-ritual form. Through the exploration of the kōlam we are treated to a delightful series of thoughtful observations and reflections that reverberate far beyond the Tamil threshold.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is a retired Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vijaya Nagarajan is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology/Religious Studies and in the Program of Environmental Studies at the University of San Francisco.



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