25 October 2011

Deepavali Lights

In Vedic times, fire was kept alive in every household in some form and carried when migrating to new locations. Later the presence of fire in the household or religious building was ensured by an oil lamp. Over the years various rituals and customs were woven around the oil lamp.

Early lamps were made out of stone or seashells. The shape was like a circular bowl with a protruding beak. Later they were replaced by earthen and metal lamps. The simple shape evolved and the lamps were created in the shapes of the animals and things associated with God like conch shells etc.

Light is a universally accepted force that is regarded as a symbol of knowledge, which removes the darkness of ignorance. There is the belief in South India that goddess Lakshmi provides her blessings to those who propitiate her by lighting lamps in their homes. This belief is held all over India but in Tamil Nadu as well as during Deepavali, the Festival of Light, the lighting of lamps is also practiced during the month of Karthigai.

Light is considered as a symbol of auspiciousness, prosperity and abundance. The light in the lamp symbolizes knowledge the highest truth in the most simplest way. The Lord is the 'Knowledge principle' who is the very source and illuminator of all. Hence light is considered as the Lord Himself.

The wick in the traditional oil lamp symbolizes ego and the oil or ghee used symbolizes our negative tendencies. When we are lit by self knowledge, the negative tendencies (oil) melt away and finally the ego (wick) perishes. In the course of its burning, the flame of the lamp which burns upwards, reminds one of acquiring the knowledge which would guide one to higher ideals. To read more about the esoteric aspect of lamps and their part in Festival, go to this link here.

The lamp is dear to the heart of Goddess Lakshmi. Legend has it that she was travelling through the skies on a dark night and saw a small ray of light. As she approached the beam, she saw a tiny lamp in a hut throwing its radiance all around. The lamp had been lit to propitiate her. Pleased, she blessed all those who lit lamps with prosperity.

The lamp is regarded as an emblem of Agni, the God of Fire as well the Sun God, Surya. And is said to be filled with sanctity mainly because of its light giving characteristic.

Lamps were lit with a base or pedestal, because according to the Shastras, Mother Earth cannot bear the heat of the light. As time passed, the standard lamps of simple shape became more complicated and elaborate.

The lamps can be categorised into different types, and some of those types are listed below:-

Mud lamps or Terracotta lamps: These lamps can be said to be the oldest of all lamps, as they date back to the Neolithic age. These brick-coloured lamps can be shaped in the simple form of an "ahal" or designed like animals, birds or human forms.

Kuthuvilakku: The most common among all lamps is the Kuthuvilakku. The name was derived from the fact that these lamps were originally spiked into the ground. They are now stand-alone pieces with ornate decorations, but the name has remained through the ages. The lamp has five bowls on the top and there is a trim pedestal fixed firmly on a heavy circular base. These lamps are used in common households and are also used on ceremonial platforms. The Kuthuvilakku is usually decorated on the top with the structures of the `hamsa` or mythical swan with other religious symbols.

Thattu Vilakku, Step Lamp: This lamp has different steps or layers. It is made of bronze. Oil is put inside every cup.

Thongavillaku or the eternal lamp found in the Chola inscriptions of South India, is said to be a lamp which burns all through the night without attention. These lamps can be seen in the temples hung by a chain. No oil needs be added or the wick changed. The structure of the lamp is important. Oil is stored in a round container from which the wick draws a drop at a time. The feed hole, the thickness of the wick and the size of the air inlet have to be perfectly synchronised. The lamp is hung by an ornamental brass chain that has on top a swan or other bird as decorative motifs. Endowment of perpetual lamps by devotees to a temple was considered a sacred service.

Kilai or Branch Vilakkus are also seen in Temples to light up courtyards. These lamps are made up of a number of branches fixed to the main stem. This elaborately made lamp is usually lit only on Karthigai day or on the "Janma Nakshatra" day of the presiding deity of the Temple. It is actually made up of a number of lamps designed to look like branches.

Torana Vilakku or Garland Lamp: This is the most ornamental of all lamps and offers the most illumination. There is mention of the "Deepamalai" in Pandya and Chola inscriptions. These lamps decorate doorways. There is an added brilliance as the brass-sheet to which the lamps are attached reflects the light.

Pavai Vilakku or Lady with Lamp: This lamp, it is thought, owes its origins to lamps shaped like human beings made by the Yavanas, Roman settlers in India. The bronze workers of Tamil Nadu stylised this form and gave it facial features, hair styles, costumes, jewellery and other ornamentation relating to the region and period. Often, people wanting to make an offering of a lamp would have one cast with their own features.

Thoratnavilakka: A hand lamp that provides great illumination. The reference of this type of lamps can be found from Pandya and the Chola inscriptions.

Kai Vilakku or Hand Lamp: This lamp is carried in the hand and is used to light other lamps. It has an "ahal" or oil receptacle, a pot in the centre to hold oil, a spoon attached with a chain, a wick pin and a long handle. This kind of a lamp is usually used in temples.

Kuthgu Vilakku: This is a type of lamp carried in Temples during processions. It has a long handle and the person carrying the lamp walks in front of the deity to show the way.

Gaja Vilakku or Elephant Lamp: This lamp which is shaped like an elephant is linked to the concept of salvation through surrender. Lighting the "gaja vilakku" epitomises "saranagathi" or total surrender to Lord Narayana.

Hanging Lamps: Lamps in the shape of pigeons or birds where the chain is hooked. These lamps are made of bronze and are very heavy.

Lakshmi Vilakku: The lamp is symbolic of Goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and is referred to as Deepalakshmi.

Karaha Deepam or Pot Lamp: This lamp is a pot or several pots with a wick which is lit and carried by devotees in fulfillment of vows. These rituals are common in Temples for Muruga and Mariamman. The pot is decorated with turmeric-coated coconut, mango leaves and a saffron cloth before being placed on the devotees head.

Deepa Sthambha: For lighting multiple lamps, wooden and stone deepastambhas (towers of light) were created. Erecting a deepastambha in front of a temple is still a general practice in South India. Smaller spaces, like homes, adapted the deepastambha into deepavriksha (tree of light).

Changalavattam: This lamp used in temple processions is made of bronze and is very heavy. It has an oil storage space with a spoon attached to it by chain.

Chirathu: The outer wall of a Temple is fully lined with columns of lamps. Lamps can be made of clay, stone or bronze.

Aarti Lamp: The Aarti lamp usually has a handle attached to it for holding it. The arrangements of the lamps depends on place and occasion.

Asato maa sadgamaya
Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya
Mrityor maa amritan gamaya
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

“From the unreal, lead us to the Real; from darkness, lead us unto Light; from death, lead us to Immortality. Om peace, peace, peace.”

Wishing you a Joyous and Light Filled Deepavali


Hari said...

Wonderful information and beautiful photographs.

Anonymous said...


Shelly said...

Would love to see the Branch Vilakku when it is lit up. It would take lots of oil too.

Uma said...

Hey can you tell ,e where did you found that multi layered huge brass lamp? I need it

Meenakshi Ammal said...

Hi Uma:

Not too sure to which lamp you are referring. In the above posting, there is a photo of a large brass lamp with lots of branches . . . if thats the one you mean, its located in the Hall outside the Samadhi Shrine of Seshadri Swamigal at his Ashram here in Tiruvannamalai.