Alpana: Artistic Expressions of Devotion

As one of the many traditional arts of Bangladesh, alpana is an intensely personal ritualistic practice that continues to be an integral part of Bangladeshi culture today. Also known as alipana, this art of floor painting using a paste made from ground rice is performed as an individual offering to the Hindu gods in which the devotee asks for the fulfillment of a much-cherished desire and/or for protection and guidance in daily life. It is carried out as puja – an act of devotion – throughout the year, but takes on special significance during holy festivals and community events, such as weddings.

For generations alpanas have formed part of the spiritual practice of brata, being a vow observed by women as a request to receive something special to them. Each time a devotee performs a brata, an alpana is drawn on the ground depicting the desired object encircled in decorative motifs. At a given time the bratee (the one performing the brata) will appeal to the deity for blessings. There are more than seventy bratas, each of which may have numerous deities. In this cultural ritual, the focus is not on the quality of the art, but rather the emphasis is on the objects and symbols drawn and the meaning behind them.

Derived from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘to coat with’ or ‘to plaster’ – alimpana – alpana originated in Bengal and is now practiced in parts of India and throughout Bangladesh. In India alpana may be known as rangoli and incorporates brightly colored patterns, but in Bangladesh the patterns are drawn in white only. Some items that feature regularly in alpana are the sun, rice stems, owls, fish, lotus flowers and the footprints of Lakshmi – the Hindu Goddess of wealth, prosperity, good fortune and the embodiment of pure beauty. The Goddess Lakshmi features prominently in the daily lives of Hindus, both at home and in places of business. Alpana is the tangible expression of devotion to Hindu deities.