"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.
The steps leading to the main shrine were always decorated with a design known as the vasudhara. Also the name of a spectacular waterfall in Kumaon, vasudhara refers to pouring ghee (clarified butter) streaks in groups of seven during several Hindu religious ceremonies. Vasudhara is also the name of the goddess who is the equivalent of Lakshmi in Nepalese Buddhist tradition. To create the vasudhara design, the steps' risers are painted with geru, and then vertical lines of biswar are dripped in groups of seven.
Despite these vivid memories of Kumaoni temples, it wasn't until recently that I fully understood the aipans' religious significance. A diplomat's daughter, I've grown up across the world. The aipans on our doorways-from Australia to Cambodia-were first and foremost a reminder of my family's cultural roots.
As a teenager in Australia and India, I loved watching my mother make them. While my mother sat on her haunches, spreading geru on the doorway, my job was to grind the soaked rice into a smooth paste. When my mother drew designs with biswar on top of the geru, some of the geru streaked into the rice, but it just added to their charm.
My mother told me that she had learned some motifs from her mother, my nani, who in turn had learned them from her mother. My mother picked up other motifs from books and others' aipans. There were no hard and fast rules, just a lot of practice required. I tried to mimic my mother's designs in practice aipans she'd let me make. She'd instruct me to keep my touch light and my hands moving, so that the design was fluid. But I was never as good as she was.
"Well, I can't make them as good as your nani," laughed my mother.
In India, when we went over my nani's house during festive occasions such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, I saw her handiwork. On Diwali, Kumaonis decorate their houses with aipans. Lakshmi's feet are especially favored. People look forward to Lakshmi visiting their homes, bringing wealth with her. To guide her into the house, Lakshmi's feet are drawn.
Nani's aipans had the same version of Lakshmi's feet my mother depicted. But nani also made a complex aipan that she called the Mahalakhsmi chauki. It was made in the prayer room, and an idol of Lakshmi was kept atop the chauki. The chauki looked like a geometric pattern. It had religious elements such as swastikas (symbolizing good luck and auspiciousness in Hinduism) and two opposing triangles that intersected each other.
"It symbolizes Lakshmi," my mother told me when I asked what it meant. The Lakshmi I knew was a beautiful woman with glowing skin, sooty eyes, and long flowing hair. She stood on a lotus flower with a hundred petals. I wasn't quite sure how the Mahalakshmi chauki was the same thing, but I accepted it as part of my culture.
When my father was posted to Toronto seven years ago, I didn't expect to see many aipans. My mother had to send to India for geru, when she found out it wasn't readily available here. I'd almost forgotten about the chauki my nani drew until I recently attended a presentation on tantra at the Royal Ontario Museum. I was curious to find out more about this esoteric tradition of Hinduism commonly stereotyped as a ritual of orgiastic sex.
When the discussion of yantra-a meditative tool or vehicle-came up, I noticed the yantras' similarities with chaukis. Each Hindu deity has a yantra form, and one of the most commonly seen yantras is the Sri Chakra. It symbolizes Sri, the mother goddess in Hinduism who has many manifestations, especially that of Shiva's consort.
The Sri Chakra's many interlocking opposing triangles reminded me of nani's Mahalakshmi chauki. The Sri Chakra's triangles represented the union of Shiva and Sri and the creation of the cosmos. I came back from the panel and excitedly told my mother about my discovery. She handed me a Hindi book on Kumaon.
The chapter on the "folk art aipan" explained that the Mahalakshmi chauki starts with a dot signifying the cosmos, followed by the two triangles representing Lakshmi and her consort Vishnu. The three corners of the opposing triangles signify the divine trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva and that of Mahakali-Mahasaraswati-Mahalakshmi respectively. The union suggests all procreation, and the resulting star-shape is the lotus on which Lakshmi stands.
The museum lecture reminded me of my heritage, adding to it a complexity that I hadn't known before. It also inspired in me what my mother calls my "occasional traditionalist fits." Ever since the snow melted, I've been thinking about making some aipans.
Like other elements of Hinduism today, aipans are a marketable commodity and are sold in many forms. The most interesting are perhaps the aipan sheets made from red plastic and white paint. While the lurid colors aren't to my purist tastes, these sheets can be conveniently placed at doorways or prayer rooms and then stored away. But they don't come close to creating the feeling of continuity between the generations I feel watching my mother and my nani create aipans from scratch.
So, on a bright weekend in April, I found myself puttering around the kitchen, trying to find the geru. I'd meant to surprise my mother. Since I'd woken her up, I asked if she could guide me. I knew the basics, but I hadn't made an aipan in years.
My mother asked me to step aside and took out the geru. She soaked some rice, which I ground into a paste. I got on my haunches on our little terrace, and my mother stood over me. Just as generations of women before, my mother instructed me-tilt your hand, use your nail, drag the lines longer. Eventually, she left me to my own devices, looking at the aipan when I had finished. She said I'd done a good job.
It's been a few days now, and inclement weather has dulled the aipan. But every time I look out at the terrace, I am reminded of the place I come from. My aipans aren't bad, but I still need practice. And maybe by the time Diwali rolls around in winter, I will have figured out the chauki my nani drew.