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Found on the Internet:
All About Lamps used in Tamilnadu
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The following is an interesting article by Ms. Ambujam Anantharaman, all about Lamps used
in Tamilnadu, that appears in
Chennai Online website under the title:
"The Brilliance of
Traditional Lamps" .
The Brilliance of Traditional Lamps
What can be more beautiful than a lamp glowing in the darkness? Make scores of lamps of
different design, shape and size, arranged in intricate patterns, and it becomes a
visual delight. Sometimes the visual appeal is so strong that the strong spiritual
significance behind the festival of "Karthigai" is forgotten.
Light, of course, is ever a symbol of knowledge and dispelling of darkness. Let there
be light, said God, and there was light. This truth is common to all cultures. In Hinduism,
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 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. While this
legend is applicable to all parts of India, the lighting of lamps during Karthigai , in Tamil
Nadu, has another very special significance.
This is the Annamalai Deepam in Tiruvannamalai not too far from Chennai. Lord Siva is said to
have appeared here in the form of an immense column of fire, which could not be circumscribed.
He agreed to stay on in the spot in the form of a linga. The whole hill of Thiru Annamalai
(Arunachala) is that linga. The Thiruvannamalai temple is located at the foot of a hill
composed of igneous rock that is related to fire. The major festival at this temple is Karthigai,
when thousands of lamps are lit. The festival this year on November 23rd saw thousands of
people thronging to Tiruvannamalai to witness the "deepam".
Karthigai is also the time when shops and art centres everywhere come up with lamp
exhibitions and sales. This year Dakshina Chitra featured a unique collection with rare
and unique lamps obtained from various helpful people of Chennai. There is a fascinating
story behind all these lamps, some of which can be seen in the photographs. Following is a
description of some of them. Next time you go to a lamp sale or an antique shop, look out
for one of these lamps!
Thungavilakku or perpetual lamp : This lamp is mentioned in Chola inscriptions. It is called
the "sleepless lamp" because it will burn through the night without attention. No oil need
to be added or the wick changed. The structure of the lamp is very important. The 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 in perfect synchronisation. The
lamp is hung by an ornamental brass chain that has on top a swan or other birds as decorative
motifs. Endowment of perpetual lamps by devotees to a temple was considered a sacred service.
Kilai vilakku or branch lamps : This is a metal lamp specially designed for temples. The "tree"
of lights illuminates the "prakaras" of temples. 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.
Pavai vilakku or lady with a 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. Lord Anjaneya is also a
popular motif on this lamp.
Hanging lamps: These too evolved in temples and the cultural activities conducted there.
These many-tiered lamps are hung from the roof of the temple assembly hall or the sanctum
sanctorum. In the latter the purpose is to highlight the beauty of the deity, while the
former lights up venues for dance, music or discourses.
Kai vilakku or hand lamp : This lamp with origins in Kerala 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.
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. The "Torana deepam" sometimes stands as a
separate entity too. The two sides are fashioned like the kuthuvilakku and joined by
means of a separately fabricated arch.
Gaja vilakku or elephant lamp : This lamp which is shaped like an elephant is linked to
the concept of salvation through surrender. Gajendra moksha – the lord saving his elephant
devotee from the jaws of a ferocious crocodile - is the legend behind this concept. Lighting
the "gaja vilakku" epitomises "saranagathi" or total surrender to Lord Narayana.
Karaha deepam or pot lamp : Karaham means pot and this lamp is a pot or several pots with
a wick. These lamps are 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. The
pilgrim dances his way to the shrine with the pot delicately balanced atop his head.
Bhajan lamp : These lamps are used in Andhra Pradesh in Bhajan mandaps. Made of brass sheets,
the lamps are shaped like a tree with leaves and flowers. The Ramayana is engraved on the
Chettiar lamp : Only the Chettiar community of Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu used this type of lamp.
A banana tree was used as a base to erect the lamp. The community had a special ritual
where a boy was deemed to have matured into a man. The lamp was used for this ritual. This
rite is no more in practice.
Kuthuvilakku : The most common among all lamps is the kuthuvilakku. These do not need further
description except to say that the name was derived from the fact that these lamps were
originally spiked into the ground. They are now stand-alone pieces with several decorations,
but the name has remained through the ages.
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. Whether shaped in the simple form of an "ahal" or
designed like animals, birds or human forms, these brick-coloured lamps are lovely and
inexpensive. An ideal choice for a casual collector, leaving the more ornate and pricey
to the connoisseurs!
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