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Main Article - Tarditional Buildings of Jaffna

Decorative aspects of Jaffna Houses

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Photo Gallery - Jaffna Buildings and Environment


Decoration in Jaffna Buildings

Conceptual and Symbolic aspects of
Decoration in Jaffna

Practices related to decoration in traditional societies have multitudes of meanings. These function as communication systems in the context of the culture of any specific group of people. Therefore the analysis of these artistic expressions could reveal much about the culture of these socities and throw light on the changing or evolving world-view systems, which are underlaying in such practices. Jaffna community too has its share on this. In Jaffna there are many artistic and ritualistic practices, where the temporary decoration of the environment become part of the system. To understand some of the aspects of decorations in Jaffna buildings it is useful to go through some of the temporary decorative practices, which are common in the region.

Decorations of temporary nature had been used in Jaffna in connection with occasions such as religious functions, festivals and other celebrations related to weddings etc. in village houses. Many of such practices have more meanings than mere decoration. They are generally of symbolic nature. Originally, almost all of these decorations were done using natural material.

Fig. 1

The figure shows two banana plants with fruits are tied on either side of the entrace to a house during the occasion of a wedding ceremony.

Many of the decorations which are symbolic in nature are related to the entrances. Following are few of them which are still actively practiced in Jaffna.

  1. Drawing decorative patterns (Kolam) on the floor at the entrance,
  2. Decorating the entrance with banana plant with fruits and
  3. Placing "Niraikudam" and traditional lamp at the entrance.
  4. Decorating the Entrance and the adjacent areas with mango leaves and "Thoranam", made out of tender coconut palm leaves.

Drawing "Kolam" is not practiced in Jaffna with the same spirit as it is practiced in Tamilnadu, where it is done in most of the households everyday. In Jaffna very few people do this. They too limit this practice during the month of "Markazhi". (mid December - mid January). This practice was followed with much more sincerity in some parts of Jaffna Town, such as Vannarponnai and adjacent areas. This can be attributed to the fact that these areas formed part of the Hindu native section of the town and were the centre for Hindu religious revival activities in Jaffna and had closer contacts with Tamilnadu. A section of the residents including trader communities, artisans, musicians, weavers and others from various other communities had effective contacts with their counterparts in Tamilnadu, India and contributed positively for the above practice in these areas.

The practice of drawing "Kolam" has a few accompanied practices in Jaffna and all of these together have relevance to the occasions of "Thirvempavai" in "Markazhi" and "Pongal", the harvest festival of Tamils in "Thai" (the tenth month, according to  the Tamil calendar, coincides with the period from mid January to mid February). Drawing Kolam is done very early in the morning by ladies of the house hold. The area in front of the entrance is swept clean and sprayed with water slightly to make the surface suitable for the purpose. Those days the kolam was applied using roasted white rice flour. Little amount of flour is taken in between the thumb and the fore finger in such a way that the flour can be dropped, to make pattern in a controlled manner, in required amount while moving the hand. Once  the kolam is complete, a small ball of cow dung is placed at the centre of the kolam pattern and a few stems of the grass species "Aruku" is inserted on top of this dung ball. this is then decorated with flowers. This is said to be representing the god "Pillaiyar" (Ganapathy). These symbolic Pillaiyars are removed later and collected carefully throughout the month of Markazhi (30 days). On the first day of the next month "Thai", the "Pongal" day, in addition, a similar   Pillaiyar made out of --- ball also placed on the kolam. When the boiled rice and the other items are kept in front of the Sun as offerings, all 32 collected symbolic Pillaiyars also placed there with separate simillar offerings. Once all rites are over, the Pillaiyars are taken out and thrown into a nearby water body such as a "kulam", with some coins and the offerings exclusively kept for these Pillaiyars.

Tying banana plant on either side of the entrance gate during occasions is not done only for decorative purpose. This together with "Niraikudam" (full pot), "Maavilai Thoranam" etc. form part of symbolic representations 

Fig. 2

Another wedding ceremony. The figure shows the "Niraikudam" and traditional lamps placed at the entrance to invite guests.

in line with Hindu tradition as practiced in Jaffna. One should also note that this practice was not limited to auspicious occasions but also applied to occasions such as funerals too, with slight differences. While "Kathali" variety of banana plant is used for auspicious occasions, a different variety of banana called "Saambal", which is used only for making curries, used for inauspicious occasions. One can see a difference in "Thoranam" too.  (see fig.3). Thoranams are made out of tender coconut leaves with either five or three folds. For auspicious occasions "Thoranams" with five folds are used, three fold "Thoranams" are used only for inauspicious occasions.

Fig. 3:

The figure shows how a "Thoranam" is made from tender coconut leaf. The Tender leaves of the coconut palm is light creamish in colour. It is cut with a knife as shown in the figures. Then the  leaf is opened and folded into the form as indicated here. The five fold "Thoranams" are used for auspicious occasions such as weddings, relegious functions etc., and the three fold ones are for inauspicious occations including funerals etc.


  1. Tender coconut leaf cut keeping it in closed position.
  2. Cut leaf in opened position.
  3. Completed "Thoranam" with five folds.
  4. Complete "Thoranam" with three folds.

     A.  Cut lines   B. Folds

Fig: 4  

The figure shows the way how the "Thoranam" and the mango leaves are attached to the rope.

  1. Thoranam
  2. Mango leaves
  3. Rope

"Niraikudam" (Full pot)   

A pot is filled with water and a dressed coconut is kept to cover the pot and a specific number of mango leaves, usually five, are arranged in a circular form between the coconut and the rim of the pot. This is what we call a "Niraikudam" in Jaffna and Thamilnadu. A base to keep the "Niraikudam"  is prepared by spreading an end piece of a banana leaf ("Thalai vaazhai ilai" in Tamil) on the floor or on a table depending on the purpose and some paddy is heaped in the middle of the leaf. The paddy is spreaded slightly to form a bed where the "Niraikudam" can be kept stable. "Niraikudam" is generally decorated with flowers. In moost occasions, the "Niraikudam" is grouped with on or two "Kuththu Vilakku"s (Traditional Lamps), beetle leaves, areca nuts, banana fruits etc. There are slight variations in the usage of material in other parts of india and among the Sinhala Buddhists of Srilanka. "Niraikudam" is considered one of the most auspicious item among Hindus.


Fig: 5

"Niraikudam", "Kuththuvilakku" and other auspicious items




photographed by: Thurai

"Niraikudam" is a symbol of prosparity. During many ocasions, it is used as a gesture of greeting and invitation. During certain relegious ceremonies, "Nirakudam" is used to represent deities.  During functions such as weddings, guests are received and greeted with "Niraikudam" at the entrance. When a statue of a deity or even respected persons brought in a procession along the road, the residents living on either side of the road greet them with "Niraikudam" in front of their houses.   

The above practices are deep rooted in Hindu communities and one can notice that there are many artificial products, made out of plastics, aluminium, paper etc. to imitate the natural materials, in the market to facilitate the extension of  these practices to places where such natural materials are not available or not convenient to use. Plastic sticker sheets with "Kolams" printed on them are available, and artificial mango leaves fixed to strings and garlands too can be bought to decorate the entrances. These items now can be seen not only in  the traditional Hindu areas, but also in the Middle East, Europe, America,  Australia and other places.

Fig: 5

An artificial mango leaves line tied across an entrance door of a house.

Fig: 5

Blown-up image of a few of the mango leaves show Laxmi and Ganapathy printed on alternative leaves.

Although the above artificial items are not very much in use in Jaffna, I mentioned it here to show certain conceptual Hindu elements, which are some times clearly visible in these artificial items than in their natural equivalents, which convey the message in more abstract way. For example the blown-up image of the artificial mango leaves (fig.7) have been printed with the figures of Laxmi and Ganapathy on them to make it clear what the practice originally indicated symbolically.


  Last updated on 30 January 2005