As the sun sets every day, across India, there is a common ritual that is carried across many households. A strike of the match, the familiar smell of oil and burning wick, an ethereal glow in the dark accompanied by prayers – yes, the traditional lamp is what the country lights at dusk. Despite the convenient electric lights, the Vilakku or traditional lamp stands out as beautiful as ever.
Symbolisms and stories surround every ancient tradition, including that of the traditional Kerala lamp or the Nilavilakku. Be it Vishu or Diwali, Kerala starts its day with the Nilavilakku – the elegant traditional lamp that is mostly made of either brass or bronze. As the name suggests, Nilam is the ground and vilakku is the lamp – indicating the type of lamp that stands on the ground. While there are different types of lamps, the most popular and graceful of them all is the Nilavilakku. It is believed that Kerala is where this style of lamps originate from, and the state boasts of superior craftsmanship in brass and bronze lamps.
Kerala’s association with elegant lamps goes a long way back. The Lakshadeepam festival (laksham literally meaning thousands) held in Trivandrum’s Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple, showcases the state’s love for traditional lamps. The festival dates back to 1750 and is an annual tradition to date! That said, the Kerala Nilavilakku is not just a Hindu tradition – the Syrian Christian artform, Margamkalli is a dance centered around the traditional Kerala lamp. These torchbearers of tradition are also found in some old mosques in the state too. An interesting fact – the world’s largest church lamp can be found at Kuravilangad, Kerala!
Tucked away in Alapuzha district of Kerala lies a small but bustling town called Mannar. It is here that the above said lamps trace their origin to. Mannar’s craftsmen are the masters of brass, bronze and silver; their masterpieces are bells and lamps that bring out the traditions of Kerala in the most artistic manner. Molten brass or bronze is used to by these craftsmen to mould them into exclusive handmade Nilavilakkus; the process of which takes three weeks for each! Eventually, these traditional lamps become heirloom pieces that are held in families over decades; such is their beauty and longevity.
The Kerala Nilavilakku comes in various shapes and sizes, but the traditional varieties have a solid base and stem atop which sits the oil wick holder. Sizes can go up to even a magnificent 5 feet vilakku that stands tall and graceful. Some antique Nilavilakkus come in the form of a bird holding a lamp. The parrot sits atop a tall base and from its beak dangles the lamp! These can be ideally placed in pairs at the entrance of houses and are convenient as cupboard-top decorative items too.
We live in times where light comes on at the flick of a switch, but the vilakku is not yet forgotten. The lighting of the traditional oil lamp has a significance that goes beyond just providing illumination. Have you ever lit a lamp and not been mesmerised by the unearthly glow of the flame? Fire is said to be energy, even a source of life, a harbinger of wisdom and is worshipped as Agni. The traditional oil lamp when lit, brings about a wave of positive energy that fills us and the home where we light it. The energy also makes us an easy receptacle of positivity, which is why prayers are said when lighting the vilakku.
Here’s what you should know when lighting a lamp:
- Traditional vilakkus can be lit both at dawn and dusk. The lamp is sure to give you a great start to the day.
- Use good quality oil such as sesame or coconut along with a cotton wick.
- Here’s a sanskrit sloka that can be said when lighting the lamp.
Shubam Karoti Kalayanam,
Arogyam Dhana Sampataha
Shatru Buddhi Vinashaya
Deepa Jyotir Namostute
Translation: “I prostrate to the lamp, the light that signifies brilliance, health and wealth. May it destroy all bad thoughts and bring in everything auspicious.”