A Taxonomy to Delight the Observer

“Tangled” Kolams, “Line” Kolams, “Flower” Kolams, Rangoli — a Taxonomy to Delight (and Confuse?) the Observer

by Sunita Vatuk

Eye on India asked me to contribute a blog post on the various types of kolams found in Tamil Nadu.

There is no definitive list: this practice is deeply connected to family traditions, so people use different words to describe the same kind of designs, or use the same words to mean different kinds of designs.

And for every general statement that can be made about the practice of making kolams, there is someone whose experience is an exception.

Most of the women I interviewed used a bright white stone powder to make their kolams. You could buy this powder in shops near temples, or from a traveling salesman on a bicycle. Some women ground their own rice powder, perhaps mixing it with the stone powder. And for some special kolams, women used a kind of paint made out of rice powder and water, perhaps with some color mixed in.

So this taxonomy of kolams will definitely not clear up the confusion, but will give you a sense of the range of what is out there on the thresholds of twenty-first century Tamils. It is based on discussions with approximately one hundred women now living in one of my research sites: Chennai, rural areas within a few hours of Chennai, Madurai, and rural areas within a few hours of Madurai.

The kolams that interest most mathematicians (and I’m no exception!) are called cikku kolams by some people and kambi kolam by others. (One translation for cikku is “tangled”, but as you might expect, it is not the only translation. Two translations of kambi are “line” and “wire”).

These kolams are made by putting an array of dots, and then creating curves that go around the dots. There are very strict rules that about 95% of these kolams follow, but there are also a handful of classic kolams that are exceptions to those rules.

Here is a particularly nice example of a cikku kolam:   Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 12.32.58 PM

Cikku kolam, also called kambi kolam by some.


Some people save the words kambi kolam for kolams like that below that start with a series of lines, drawn freehand without dots. This is a kolam that all of the women I interviewed identified as a Brahman kolam.

brahman kolam

Some people mean this type of kolam when they say “kambi kolam.”


Another type of Brahman kolam is made with wet rice paste. These last several days, instead of several hours:

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 12.32.42 PM

This type of kolam is drawn freehand with wet rice paste, which can last a week instead of a few hours.


These days, the most common type of kolam in cities is the poo kolam translated as “flower” kolam. These start with an array of dots, but the dots are connected and may not be visible in the final kolam. These are usually representational, and what is being represented is often a flower, hence the name. Some women call them rangoli, which, to a Hindi speaker, implies the use of rang or color. But in Tamil Nadu, a rangoli doesn’t necessarily have color.

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 12.32.27 PM


A flower kolam uses dots, but since the lines connect the dots, they may not be visible. A few people called these rangoli, even though they don’t have color.

flower kolam 2

This is an example of a flower kolam that started with dots, and ended with color.

The word rangoli is reserved by some women to mean kolams that are drawn freehand. Here is an example of one such:

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 12.39.46 PM
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