Floor Mandalas

Aalpanas and other forms of circular-shaped, ceremonial ground-art of South Asia

A form of circular ground art rooted in ceremonial art traditions from south Asia, Aalpana-making is an ancient form of ‘ephemeral art happening’, in which the art-making process offers a collective experience to the individual viewers and participants gathering around it through the duration of the art form. Temporary in nature, traditionally the process of creating this form of circular floor art brings people together to welcome and celebrate special occasions and can often help them focus on common goals.

One of the grandest examples of the practice of contemporary Aalpana is the city-wide Aalpana-making on the main streets and inter-sections in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to celebrate their Language Movement Day, Independence Day, and the Bengali New Year, making it an expression of national and linguistic pride and cultural identity.

Generally speaking, Alpana art is a form of mandala, in the sense they are usually circular in form. Mandala means circle in Sanskrit, an ancient language of India related to ancient Latin. The traditions of making temporary circular-art and designs on floor, courtyard, and other surfaces on the ground to celebrate special occasions in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are known by various regional names, such as, Aalpana, Rangoli, and Kolam in various parts in south Asia.

Circular designs have been found on the walls of prehistoric caves, in ancient tapestries and stained-glass windows and in the artistic expression of people all over the world. Made up of simple elements, yet capable of becoming marvelously complex, to many artists and scholars it represents wholeness or the celestial circles we call earth, sun, and moon, as well as conceptual circles of friends, family, and community. It is seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself in the form of a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our connection to the infinite.

Because mandala designs grow and radiate from a center while bringing our focus back to the center as we experience the beauty of the whole design – making mandalas can develop concentration encourage the calm and quiet within us. More and more educators are starting to use mandalas as an activity for centering and refreshing their students’ minds or to begin or end classes and activities.

Traditionally made of white, mostly white or colored rice powder, flower petals, leaves or colored sand, in some regions, Aalpanas or Rangoli designs are used to decorate homes on a daily basis as well as for venues for special celebrations like graduation, weddings, prayers and festivities and can be found in the homes of people of various faiths in South Asia. Children usually learn to make these designs from their older relatives during special festivities as they work together on the project. On special days, they may be made of thousands of layered flower petals, creating a brightly fragrant design. The ornamental patterns for these circular designs are often based on nature-centered botanical forms and shapes to adorn the floors of homes, places of worship as well as civic and meeting places to mark auspicious occasions and to welcome and attract everything good for the family or community.

Images from workshops and ceremonial art events by Sudeshna Sengupta in various settings, mostly in the US: