The Tradition of
Lamps in India
By Chitra Balasubramaniam
Lamps are an integral part of Indian culture. They
weave their, own magic irrespective of whether they are in the, form of a mere
candle or the traditional oil filled wick lamp. The poetic beauty of the
flickering flame cannot be described in words.
The origins of the lamp clan probably be traced back to
the time fire was discovered. fire holds an irreplaceable place in man's life.
In India, it came to, be associated closely with the Hindu religion and form of
worship. Therefore, it is but natural that the objects in which ceremonial fire -
was lit or kept also ,aroused feelings of reverence. These objects were,
therefore, considered equally important and were made with the utmost care. In
the beginning, natural substances such as stones, shells, tree7products etc.,
must have been used. These paved the way to their present beautiful shapes,
with craftsmen giving "the, lamps more depth and meaning.
We find in India a gamut of beautiful lamps made of all
sorts of material - clay, terracotta, porcelain, brass, bronze, silver and at
times even dough. There is literature on lamp making. Norms exist regarding its
size, lighting and measurements. Festivals of lamps are celebrated and rituals
are prescribed for their worship. Even dances center around lamps.
Most importantly, there are different types of lamps
used for different purposes. The lamp is considered a woman and is symbolic of
Goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and is referred to as Deepalakshmi.
The earthen lamp or "mitti ka diya is the most
common, easily available and seen lamp. Made on the potter's wheel from clay,
thousands of these are turned out every year for use by people. A good diya has
to be soaked in water before use. The single diva is the most common lamp.
However, the potter often lets his imagination run riot to churn out different
types of diyas. Some are just attractive domes with openings to hold the lamp so
that only the slight flickering can be seen while the dome protects it from
wind. Some are a bunch of five diyas - one in the middle, surrounded by four
Porcelain lamps shaped like diyas are also made these
days, as are the ones in terracotta and clay. Designer diyas hold a place of
their own. They come in all sizes. The diya is held atop an elephant or a
bankura (horse); there are hanging lamps in the shape of pigeons or birds
wherein the chain is hooked onto the bird's beak and the body of the bird houses
the place for filling oil or wax.
The place of pride is taken by lamps made of various
metals. Lamps in olden times were made of commonly available metals including
gold and other precious metals and stones. The tradition continues in the
temples, where exquisitely made lamps can be seen. Temples in South India have
an amazing diversity of lamps. Gujarat also has its own repertoire of lamps.
Some temples have niches in the walls where lamps can be placed. Others have
rows of brass lamps placed on the exteriors Many of them also have huge lamps at
the entrance. The lamp is in the form of a huge pillar, carved intricately.
Plates at equal intervals hold the oil and the beaks of the wicks. The
circumference of the plates is the widest at the bottom and gets progressively
smaller as one moves up. The top is decorated with a lion or a peacock. The base
has figures from Hindu mythology. Such pillar lamps or deepstambbas are mostly
cast in bronze.
Different lamps are made for different purposes. An
aarti deepa, used at the time of prayer, is different from the one used to light
the sanctum sanctorum. The aarti deepa usually has a handle attached to it for
The arrangement of the lamps is also artistic and
varies according to place and occasion. These are either placed in circles or in
Lamps thus play an important role in everyday life in
India. Lighting a lamp near a Tulsi plant is a ritual followed by people almost
all over the country. Diwali, essentially a Festival of Lights, is all about
lamps lighting up life and chasing away darkness. Lighting a lamp in a house is
believed to bring prosperity, plenty and abundance to the family. Electricity
has not been able to replace the traditional and emotional significance of a
humble lamp in the lives of the people of India.
The author is a freelance writer.