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What can be more beautiful than a lamp glowing in the dark, and what much can be said about a lamp, one may wonder? But then the light that a lamp emits is ever a symbol of knowledge and dispelling of darkness. ‘Let there be light’, said God, and there was light; and this truth is common to all cultures all over the world.

The word ‘lamp’ is derived from the Greek word ‘lampas’, meaning a torch. The most common model was originally adapted from Egyptian sources. But as its domestic use became more and more widespread, it gradually took on more and more complex forms. Interesting, is it not?

Not many would know how the evolution of lamps came about. In the beginning, the primitive man used to wander about searching for food and seldom used to hunt after sunset, because he considered the darkness as a demon and the Sun as the giver of light. But with the passage of time he discovered fire, which was light giving and heat giving. Thus man therefore saw fire as a deity.

Let me tell you that collection of lamps is a treasure and a pleasure. Scores of lamps of different designs, shapes and sizes, arranged in intricate patterns, and all lit, become a visual delight. The Western theory considers the origin of lamp during the stone-age, as early as 70,000 B.C.

Originally the lamp consisted of a hollowed-out rock filled with moss or some other absorbent material that was soaked with animal fat and ignited. This type of lamp is still being used by the Eskimos of Alaska. But in the Mediterranean area and the East, the earliest lamp had a shell shape. Originally actual shells were used, with sections cut out to provide space for the lighting area; but later pottery or metal lamps replaced them.

Another basic type of primitive lamp has been found also in Egypt and China. The lamp was made of clay and bronze, and was sometimes provided with a spike in the centre to support the wick. The Romans introduced a new system of manufacturing the terra-cotta lamps, using two moulds and then joining the parts together, a process that stimulated the use of surface ornament and design. But gradually shapes became more complex in metals, sometimes assuming animal or vegetable forms. The large versions of the lamps, for use in circuses and public places appeared during the 1st century, AD. The medieval lamps had wicks that floated on buoys of cork or wood. The glass sanctuary lamps, supported in ornamental brass holders, are still seen hanging in some churches even today.

In India, lamps are an integral part of Indian culture. Lighting a lamp in a house is believed to bring prosperity, plenty and abundance to a family. They weave their own magic aura irrespective of their form – which of a mere candle or the traditional oil filled wick lamp. As already said, fire holds an irreplaceable place in man’s life and the origin of the lamp clan can probably be traced back to the time when fire was discovered. But 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, 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, tree products have been used. Slowly these paved way to their present beautiful shapes, with craftsmen giving the lamps more depth and meaning. Electricity has not been able to replace the traditional and emotional significance of a humble lamp in the lives of the people of India. Thus, in India, with the development of civilization, culture and art, lamps were made in different shapes and designs. Ancient India used to have an international reputation for her brass and bell metal work. The technology of metalworking had been well developed by 2500 B.C. This manifested itself in exquisite sturdy images and icons in temples and household niches like lamps, platters and other items required for acts of worship, in gold, silver, copper, brass, bronze, and other mixed metals and alloys.

For Indians, light stands for life-sustaining forces – for example, the Sun God and Agni – the God of Fire. The scriptures say ‘Tamasoma Jothirgamaya’ (Lead me thou from darkness to light) and ‘Suryansha Sambhavo Deepa’ (Sun graces us with light). The lamp is also dear to the heart of Goddess Laxmi. Legend has it that once Laxmi 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, the Goddess blessed all those who lit lamps with prosperity. This legend is applicable to all parts of India, and even today every Hindu home is lit with lamps at sunset.

It is known that during the Vedic times, the flaming sacrificial altar in the Ashrams of Rishis was the focus of faith. The cultural tradition of ancient India has thus its genesis in the spark of the ‘yajna-vedi’. This spark later took the form of a ‘Deepa’ which means – a lamp. And with the ‘Deepa’ – the lamp begins a new chapter in civilization, that which may be called the ‘Deep-yuga’.

The oldest lamp designs in India, is the ‘Deep’ found in the excavations of Mohenjo-Daro. They were found in round or oval shape and on one side a spout was made to place the wick. The excavations at Mohenjo-Daro have shown the existence of streetlights more than five thousand years ago. Each main street of a town had a deep-stambh along and small lights over the main gates of the houses.

As civilization developed, the terracotta lamps were given lovely beautiful designs, and along with these, metal lamps also started appearing. The ancient shapes of metal lamps can be seen in the lamps of Adivasis too. The folk art and culture have their effect on the lamps. And in the lamps made by the Gonds and Bhils of Bastar, the shape of animals and birds like the bull, lion, elephant, horse, and peacock were given.

Alongside the beautification of lamps, a variety of oils were got as fat for lighting lamps. There was castor oil, linseed oil, sesame (til) oil, and mustard oil. But slowly and ultimately ‘ghee’ or butter and edible oils were used prominently. For lighting torches and lamp posts, only oil was used; and as edible oils were expensive, cheaper oils like castor oil, linseed oil and sesame oil were used for lighting. But however, even today in Hindu culture, use of sesame oil is supposed to be auspicious. While most of the women here light their lamps with this oil on Saturdays, it is a daily ritual for me with the sesame oil. Also it is a practice on every Saturday, to tie black sesame seeds in a cloth and place it in an earthern lamp filled with sesame oil. When this is lit, it is said to ward off evil [Shani].

The lamp for worship of the deity is called ‘Aarti’. The wick is soaked in ghee and the tip lit; and with the hand, in a clockwise direction, the lamp is taken before the idol of the deity and the prayer or ‘Aarti’ sung. The importance of ‘Aarti’ inspired the metalists to give the lamp attractive and artistic shapes. In these ‘Aartis’, anything from one to seven places were made for placing the wicks. The ‘aarti deepa’ usually has a handle attached to it for holding it and the arrangement of the lamps is also artistic and varies according to place and occasion. And these lamps are either placed in circles or in rows. The handles of the ‘Aartis’ were given the shapes of a lotus, a snake, an animal or a bird. And in some, figures of Lord Hanuman or Lord Ganesh were also made. Hanging lamps made of metal had also been popular and designed mostly as birds. During the Moghul period hanging lamps of metal and glass were made as decorations and were given different shapes. In all these lamps, the wick was kept in the centre for better lighting.

There have been interesting and lovely changes in the designs of pedestals for lamps from time to time. In the beginning these were round or rectangular and were made of stone or wood. After sometime these pedestals were raised in height and were called as ‘deep stambhas’ for emitting more light. In the courtyards of forts and temples, these kinds of lamps were made of stones with a provision of putting many lamps. And seeing these, the metalists experimented in designing the lamp-stands. They made tree like pedestals along with lamps. They came out with lamp-stands having outspreading branches like the Peepal and the Pine and these types are seen in the temples of India. Some more experiments were made by putting the lamp on the head of a peacock and adding a handle in the form of a snake. In south India, big lamp stands of brass are also made which are used for lighting before the start of cultural functions. On top of these lamps the set patterns of birds like peacock, garuda, and swan. And when these lamps are lit, they look simply irresistible.

Diwali is essentially a Festival of Lights and is all about lamps lighting up life and chasing away darkness. Lighting the lamps is not only a symbol of light, but also of wealth. That is why the ‘Deepavali’ festival is celebrated by lighting of lamps and worship of the Goddess of wealth, Laxmi. Considering the lamp as the symbol of Goddess Laxmi, artists made statues of women with lamps in hand. These lamps were called ‘Deep Laxmi’ and they placed them at the main gate of forts and temples as decorative pieces. These Deeplaxmi’s were shown in different poses such as sitting on elephant, dancing, etc. In one of the old Deeplaxmi’s found in Rajasthan, the statue has a shell in one hand filled with oil and a lamp on the other. This lamp when lighted has an aura around it.

Are you aware that there are different types of lamps used for different purposes? The ‘mitti ka diya’ or the earthen lamp or as it is called, is the most common and easily available lamp. These lamps are made from clay on the potter’s wheel; and thousands of these are turned out every year. A good ‘diya’ has to be soaked in water before use. The single ‘diya’ is the most common lamp. The potter cannot be stopped from letting his imagination run wild to churn out various shapes. Some have attractive domes with openings to hold the lamp so that only the 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 others and with the light emitting from within, these look real great.

Today we have designer ‘diyas’ that hold a place of their own. They come in all shapes and sizes. An example of a designer diya is that held atop an elephant or a horse. There are also hanging lamps in the shape of pigeons or other birds wherein the chain is hooked onto the bird’s beak and the bird\’s body houses the place for the wick and the oil.

Today we find in India a gamut of beautiful lamps made from all sorts of material – clay, terracotta, porcelain, brass, bronze, silver and at times even dough. Some norms exist regarding its size, lighting and measurements. Here festivals of lamps are celebrated and rituals are prescribed for their worship. Even dances center on lamps and talking of lamp dances, I am reminded of the lamp dance of Kerala, which is a gorgeous sight. I remember having participated every year in the lamp dance during my schooling years.

Lamps in olden times were made of commonly available metals including gold and precious metals and stones. The tradition continues in the temples where exquisite lamps can be seen. Metal lamps take the place of pride even today. Some temples have niches in the walls where lamps can be placed and the lighted lamps burn there for a long time. 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. There are plates at equal intervals that 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 it moves up. And some have their tops decorated with the head of a lion or a peacock. The base has figures from Hindu mythology. Such pillar lamps or deep stambbas are mostly cast in bronze. Lighting a lamp near a ‘tulsi’ plant is a ritual followed by people almost all over India. Lamps thus play an important role in everyday life in India.

Gujarat has its own repertoire of lamps, and they are a visual delight. South India has an amazing diversity of lamps too. The brass lamps of Tamil Nadu were, and still are, used in Hindu temples. Villages from the state of Tamil Nadu mould and assemble brass oil-lamps, the standing as well as the hanging ones, adorned with decorative swans or peacocks or women. And what is even more remarkable is that in many Indian households lamps are art objects. Benares and Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh are famous for their hand-made or hand-finished brass, copper and even stainless steel ones of traditional shapes. And the blacksmith is traditionally a most important part of the village community. The tribal metalware, for example that of Bastar in the state of Madhya Pradesh is mainly of iron, hammered and twisted into oil lamps. A fantastic collection of lamps indeed! Feel like possessing some of them? Check them out in the chor bazaars of Delhi and Mumbai; it is possible to buy them in various shapes and sizes. And if you are real lucky, your purchase might turn out to be an antique lamp!


Shanti Mahadevan
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