Throwing light on fire and light

Aarani Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Artificial light, to ancient man, was nothing but fire. Fire was conquered by man from time immemorial. Curiosity about fires may have come from fires caused by lightning, meteorites, volcanoes and, perhaps more frequently, by forest fires created by the rubbing of tree branches during windy seasons. On account of this, bamboo forests in Kerala frequently burn themselves down. Almost all ancient cultures learned from forest fires and simulated the same for day to day use, bettered with human ingenuity.

Not surprisingly, the methods used by different cultures have commonalities, some are exactly identical. In India, from Vedic times itself, a very effective fire making drill called ‘Aarani’ was in use. Thomas Wilson, in his book Swasthika (1901) says that the word ‘Agni’ is behind the Latin word ‘ignis’, and the English word ‘igneous’. In the book Ancient Ceylon (1909) by Henry Parker, the Aarani is described: In the Aarani which is used for producing the holy fire (Agni) of India, a single piece of wood, the Adhararani, is laid on the ground, and the drill, the Uttararani or Pramantha is held vertically on it, and turned by a string. The end point of the drill rests in a small shallow round cavity in the lower piece. Parker also points out that the hymn 29 of Rig Veda as the earliest reference to Aarani: Here is the gear for friction, here is the tinder, made ready for the spark. Bring thou the Matron (the lower stick); we will rub Agni in ancient fashion forth.

Some argue that the ancient Swastic symbol is but a representation of Aarani. Prometheus of Greek mythology also produced fire in the same fashion. In Kerala, the Aarani is still used in religious ceremonies. Frits Stall who documented the Vedic rituals of Athiraathra in 1955 in his book Agni has photographed C.V. Vasudevan Akkitiripad making fire with Aarani. The Kerala touch comes from the use of a half-coconut shell to push the drill stick down.

Surely, the Aarani could not have been a house hold instrument. It is believed that people in Kerala kept a ‘Keda Vilakku’ (the literal translation of which is ‘the lamp that is never put out’) in their houses. Samuel Matteer of London Mission mentions (in late 19th century) about the lamp in the temple in Thiruvananthapuram (Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple): There is a deep well inside the temple into which immense riches are thrown year by year and in another place, in a hollow covered by a stone, a great golden lamp which was lit over 120 years ago, still continues burning.

In Egypt and Greece also lamps that burned for years are known. Though we look at it as a religiously sacred practice, it could have been merely a necessity in temples where hundreds of lamps had to be lit every day. Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is also known for the extravaganza of lamps during the famous ‘Lakshadeepom’, when a hundred thousand lamps are lit.

Another kind of day-long fire that is popular all over the world is known as match cords. In Kerala, slow burning ropes were hung in front of shops selling cigarettes and ‘beedis’. The crude rope used for this is known as beedikayar.

Lamps need fuel to burn, and oils of various kinds have been in use all over the world. Early lighting fuels ranged from olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, whale oil, colza oil, animal fat, sesame oil, nut oil and similar substances. Animal oils were not popular in India, due to religions taboo. In Kerala, the oil of choice started with coconut oil. Early descriptions of the city such as ‘Ananthapura Varnanam’ about 700 years ago, talk of the markets selling coconut, calling out people to buy it for making ‘Vilakkin Ney’.

Travancore State Manual (1904) mentions that coconut oil is used for burning lamps. It also claims that, The fat yielded by the coconut-oil is largely used in Europe for the manufacture of candles, and according to ‘Max’ in the ‘Capital’, experiments made in the Philippines shows that the oil can be made to produce a high quality of illuminating gas free from tar.

Coconut oil creates no smoke and gives clear flame, but has low freezing point. Before electric lights arrived, the light houses at Alappuzha had powerful wick lamps supplied by M/s Chance brothers, Birmingham, which used coconut oil. The State Manual rates gingelly oil as the next in importance: It is used for burning lamps and for anointing. Some use it for cooking purposes.

Both coconut oil and gingelly oil being edible, could have been uneconomical as a lamp oil for ordinary folks. Thus the choice fell on non-edible oils. Travancore State Manual says: The laurel or Punnakka oil comes next in importance. It is expressed from the seeds of Calophylluminophyllum (laurel tree) in country mills and used mostly for burning lamps, but as it gives but a dim light, Kerosine oil is fast superseding it. Punnakka oil also gives an objectionable smell. Many ancient works on the city talk of the city streets around the fort lined with Punna trees. The city has no major presence of Punna trees today, but history leaves traces through place names such as Punnapuram and Punnakkamughal. Punna oil is available in the ‘Pachamarunnukada’ only and it is imported from Tamil Nadu.

(The first part of a series on lighting techniques in erstwhile Travancore)

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 11:52:37 AM |

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