The Shape of My Hindu Heritage

Every swirl of the floor paintings I learned from my mother and grandmother connected me to my ancestors and my Indian origins.

The racket from the kitchen, where I was shuffling steel utensils, large plastic containers full of flour and rice, and smaller ones of lentils, woke my mother.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Where's the geru?" I replied in Hindi, still peering into the shelves under the kitchen counter, looking for the container of red clay.

"What do you want to do with geru?"

"I'm thinking of doing some aipans."

"Why do people become more traditional after they've left India?" she teased.

"It's not that," I insisted. "I think it looks pretty."

Aipan is a traditional art form found in Kumaon, a mountainous region in the Indian state of Uttaranchal, where my family comes from. In simple terms, aipan could be described as floor painting. It's similar to other floor-painting traditions across India, such as kolam in South India, alpana in Bengal, and rangoli in Maharashtra.

However, aipan has its own peculiarities in the way it's created and its cultural and religious significance.

Visually, aipan's distinctiveness comes from its dual color scheme. A base coat of geru is first applied to the ground with a rag. Designs are then painted on top of the red base coat with biswar (a thin rice paste), using the nail of the ring finger as the brush. Aipans are natural, and erase over time. They are wiped clean and a fresh aipan is drawn.

In most Kumaoni houses, aipans are found on the doorways of every room, but definitely on the threshold. They are drawn only by women to beautify the house and welcome visitors. While aipans can either have cultural or religious significance, such household aipans are generally made up of decorative motifs such as the amiya (raw mango), shankh (conch), and floral patterns. Certain Hindu symbols, such as the feet of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, are also used in decorative aipans.

Religious aipans are mostly found in home altars. They are also drawn during ceremonies ranging from the namkaran (baby naming ceremony) and marriages to festivals associated with Hindu gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Lakshmi. Aipans made for such religious purposes are called either chauki or peeth. The chauki or peeth aipans are thought of as a seat for God or a divine representation. The name of the God being represented precedes chauki or peeth, such as Saraswati chauki or Vishnu peeth.

Like other parts of India, Kumaon is steeped in Hindu legend. Kumaon has ancient temples dedicated to Hindu as well as local gods. There are a few mythologies associated with the land. The region now known as Kumaon matches one of the five geographical zones of the Himalayas mentioned in ancient Hindu texts. It's said that Kumaon is actually a derivative of Kurmanchal, or the land of the Kurmavatar. One of Lord Vishnu's dashavatars (10 incarnations) was Kurmavatar, the tortoise. The Kailash-Mansarovar, said to be Lord Shiva's abode, is to the north of Kumaon.

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