January 2011


Lighting The Physical And Spiritual Darkness
January 2011




Small clay lamps lit at the Buddhist temple

Lighting the Physical and Spiritual Darkness Since antiquity, lamps have played a significant social, cultural and religious role in the lives of Sri Lankans. Lamps are still used in rural areas for household illumination, they perform an important function at ceremonies and festivals, and as light is traditionally associated with the spirit, they are an essential part of sacred ritual.

Words: Richard Boyle

In the beginning, the jungles were pitch black at night, apart from fireflies and moonlight. But the early islanders managed to divest the cloak of darkness. They travelled at night with the use of a torch, a pandam, made of cotton wicks secured by dried coconut fronds and fuelled by coconut oil. Constance Gordon-Cumming writes in Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892): "It became dark before we reached home, when suddenly the wood seemed in a blaze; inhabitants of a village ran out of their houses with bundles of lighted coconut leaves and preceded us to the next hamlet, where they were relieved by others."

Conversely, the lamps that dimly illuminated village huts were small and simple in design and often made of clay or wood. The ever-popular clay lamp, a polthel pahana (coconut oil lamp), is little more than a tear-drop shaped shallow bowl-just a few centimetres in diameter - filled with coconut oil out of which a cloth wick protrudes. These clay lamps are not only present in the shrine of a Buddhist house, but also in profusion at Buddhist temples on poya (full moon) days. The luminous intensity of these flickering lines of innumerable lamps has always been a wondrous and uplifting sight for visitors. But then it is claimed that symbolically, illumination comes from the East.

Specimens of the Bo-tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment, also received illumination, as Robert Knox describes in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1682): "There are many of these trees, which they plant all the land over. They pave around them, sweep often under them to keep them clean; they light lamps, and set up their images under them."

Should you visit a Hindu kovil (temple) during a pooja, you will witness a Brahmin (a member of the priestly class) flourishing a five-wicked brass oil lamp called a kuththu vilakku in front of a representation of a god or goddess. On special occasions, other lamps are used during a pooja, the most elaborate having several tiers of wicks. In a household Hindu shrine, however, a single-wicked brass lamp called a deepalakshmi, with a depiction of the goddess Lakshmi, is used. In November, Hindus celebrate a festival called Deepavali, "The Festival of Lights", in which homes are bedecked with lamps.

For domestic purposes clay and stone lamps provided the most convenient illumination as they were easily produced. Yet they were very sophisticated in design: check the National Museum in Colombo, which has some exquisitely produced examples of lamps fashioned in clay and stone.

Metal, though, was the preferred material for lamps used in temples and palaces. As metallurgy techniques advanced, refined models were produced in brass, copper, and bronze. Initially they were often of sheet metal, but when designs evolved the lamps were cast in solid metal. Nowadays, antique and replicated brass lamps can be found in many homes.

There are two main types of metal lamps - standing or hanging. Standing lamps normally have five wicks in spoke-like form in a star-like dish atop an intricately designed central staff with a circular drip tray at the base. Versions of this type, often 1.5m tall, are used to open functions or commence wedding ceremonies. In a ritual known as the ‘lighting of the lamp' - at a time often calculated by an astrologer where weddings are concerned-the main guests each ignite a wick.

Similar lamps with one or multiple trays were also made as hanging lamps. Of the multiple-tray variety, one features two birds of different size, one above another. The larger one, topmost, contains the oil that drips into the lower cups by gravity flow. The most remarkable lamps, though, were in the form of an elephant, an excellent example of which can be seen at the Dedigama Archaeological Museum. The elephant's hollow stomach serves as a reservoir for the oil, while one of the forelegs is an ingenious funnel. When the level of the oil in the basin falls below the hole in the foreleg, a device based on hydrostatic principles causes the oil to flow into the receptacle through the elephant's genitals.

Several years ago an old parchment was discovered that refers to a remarkable lamp associated with the myth that Adam fell on the peak of Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) after being cast out of Paradise. Adam eventually expired there and was buried in a tomb near which "lies a pit always full of pure clear water called Adam's Pitt, and in it is a rock out of which is hewed a lamp and to the admiration of all spectators is always burning without any substance being put therein".

Kandy's renowned Perahera (procession) was once magnificently illuminated according to Henry Charles Sirr in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850): "During the Kandyan monarchy the royal astrologers used to declare the fortunate hour for illuminating the town. On the appointed day, the lamps and oil were taken from the royal stores. The place, temples, the great square, and principal streets, were decorated with arches, and when the sun had set, and the fortunate hour for lighting the lamps had arrived, all these structures were brilliantly illuminated."

With the consecutive arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch and British during the 16th to 18th centuries, radical designs were introduced to the islanders - the greatest innovation being the use of glass for enclosing the flame. Nevertheless, local designs were contemporary, as John Davy reveals in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1821) regarding a certain lamp "which is commonly used by the natives,
and worth noticing for its simplicity, utility, and resemblance to some of our lamps of modern invention. It was made of brass, and composed of a spherical airtight receiver and an attached burner." 

During the past century or so international inventions such as the kerosene and Petromax lamps have become popular due to their convenience, improved illumination, and safety. In spite of this, the one negative aspect of modern lamps in Sri Lanka is the improvised bottle lamp due to its tendency to topple and spill burning kerosene on people nearby. However, safer designs have been introduced and lamps continue to hold a significant place in Sri Lankan culture.



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    The traditional oil lamp lit on special occasions

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    An ancient lamp recovered from an archaeological site housed at the National Museum, Colombo

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    Different varieties of the brass lamps

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    Kuththu Vilakku – the five wicked brass oil lamp used in kovils to venerate the deities

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    An ornate standing traditional oil lamp of two trays

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    Petromax lamp – for the fisherman burning the midnight oil

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    A display of an olden day torch at the Dalada Perahara (procession)

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