Friday Review

Dispelling darkness

(A monthly column that highlights many fascinating facts about the heritage structures around the world, this one talks about gifts of lamps to the temples.)

Several inscriptions in temples mention the gift of lamps. From a philosophical sense, they signify the banishment of ignorance by casting light (knowledge) and in a practical sense they were indispensible at a time when there were no other illumination facilities. Lamps were found both in stone and metal. In several temples, even today, one can see receptacles carved out across the ledges or in the floors – all of them lit and being the only source of light would have been a magical sight! Lamps were given as offerings to the deity or as a punishment for a crime committed to expiate the sin of committing the crime.

Lamps were donated in memory of a deceased relative, to commemorate an event or as in the case of a temple in Mylapore, Chennai, by a father who prayed for his son’s recovery from illness. Metal lamps from medieval Tamil Nadu are rare – the Madras Museum has a pair and images can be seen in the seals – they seem to have been simple affairs. Also popular were lamps cast in the image of the donor.

Popular motif Originally believed to have been a Roman tradition, paavai vilakus or a lady holding a lamp, is a popular motif today. Several temples, museums and private collections treasure these kinds of lamps. An inscription from Tirukannapuram records such a gift. It begins with the same introduction. Registers a gift of 20 kalanju of gold of 91/2 fineness (mari) for burning a twilight lamp with ghee and camphor daily, both morning and evening, in the temple, by a Brahmin of Tirumarugal who also presented for the purpose a bronze lamp stand made after his own image. The gift was accepted by the vaishnavas of the village and those versed in the sacred lore (kalai ilangumoliyalar) assembled in the Tiruniravi of this temple, which was sung by Tirumangai azhwar.

Another from the 11th century in the same temple spells out more information on the source of oil. It records the lease of house–sites given to certain individuals, around the temple of Ulagu(y)ya-nindrarulina - Nayanar Savurip-Perumal at Tirukkannapuram, in return for which they had to plant coconut palms in an allotted portion of land, from the yield of which coconut oil had to be extracted after the sixth year of their being planted and supplied for lamps to the temple.

Donors frequently had their spouses’ imaged cast as a lamp as well – the Annur Maheshwara temple has an inscription that records the gift of servants to the temple by a resident of kavaiyanputtur, who also presented a metallic statue of himself and (his wife) and gold for a twilight lamp.

If made of stone, the lamp was gouged out in the top from a pillar of granite. The height of the pillar varied with the wealth of the sponsor. The gift of a lamp would always come with a gift of cash – coins or land or livestock that would ensure the temple had an income to light the lamp “in perpetuity”.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 3:32:27 PM |

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