A long time ago when I started mixing even melting in South Indian culture, many words related to the position of a married woman caught my attention by their symbolic contents. I first learned the word pativrata (pati means husband and vrata, a vow) which describes a woman who worships her husband as god himself and remain loyal even if he becomes blind, diseased poor or impotent. Learning Kathakali in Kerala and mostly female roles, I met some of the five illustrious Pativratas, namely, Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, and Mandodari. The lines that I personated enlightened me on the various concepts attached to this status. The second word was sumankali the auspicious and dutiful married woman.
Subhadra N. whom I met in Chennai many years back embodied these principles. She and her husband invited me to celebrate Pongal at their home far away from Chennai center.I spent three days with the family and the first morning I watched how carefully and precisely she would draw in the kitchen various designs. In fact they were many of them, different in size and style. Next to the place where she would store the vessels, there was an empty space with colourful images of gods and goddesses. Facing the place, she would sit in silence, grab a cup filled up with holy ashes known as tirunîru and draw the diagram for the planet ruling each day of the week.
Next to it, hidden under a bronze sculpture of Hanuman, she draws a triangular graph shaped like a tiny mountain with a curled ribbon arising from the bottom of the figure. She explained to me that it symbolizes the monkey-god Hanuman and his quest for the healing herbs that had cured prince Rama’s brother fallen on the battle field. In the home its magical presence was to prevent diseases and death to manifest.
On the right side two stylized birds with entwined bodies sit under a lotus petals canopy. Above their heads the sun and the moon incarnate husband and wife. As she writes the kôlam, she explains that it will prevent separation and sufferings in the couple.
On the left, a lotus with eight petals in a circle welcomes two feet dedicated to Râma. Each petal bears a word from the mantra “Jaya, Jaya Râma, Sri Râma, Jaya Râma”. According to her, this kôlam is equivalent to the invocation of the divine name.