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Book Review: Iconography of Deepam – Celebrating the Traditional Lamps of Kerala

It is the holy month of Karthik and a time in the Hindu calendar where the lighting of oil lamps is considered auspicious.  Like the rest of the country, Karthik is considered extremely holy in the southern state of Kerala too. But did you know that the first Lakshadeepam in the state dates back to as early as 1750 when it was first celebrated by Maharaja Marthanda Varma in the renowned Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple? Or the fact that there are thirty-three different kinds of vilakku (lamp in Malayalam) handcrafted in Kunhimangalam in Kannur with artisans chanting a specific dhayanasloka (verses for meditation) for each one of them during its making?

Well, these are just a few of some very valuable insights shared by Indu Chinta in her second book Iconography of Deepam.  Published in October 2023, the book which delves into the functional richness of traditional oil lamps also explores its cultural and spiritual significance.  Replete with evocative sketches and striking photographs the book highlights the centrality of the lamp in not just temples and homes but also in the realm of performance arts, like Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Tholpavakoothu and Mudiyettu.

Ubiquitous Ritual

The introduction of the book underscores the ubiquity of the ritual of lighting the oil lamp each morning and evening in countless households, in an attempt to look inwards and invoke the divine.  The innate ability of the ritual to bring in a sense of comfort making one feel rooted is wonderfully described.  The familiar fragrance of the oil, the burning of the wick and the sight of the warm glow is all pervading whether one lights the Brindavanadeepam (lamp in front of the Tulasi plant), or the naranga vilakku (lemon lamp) at the Attukal Bhagavathy temple in Thiruvananthapuram or the Balideepam (a lamp lit at the sacrificial altar).  The book gives interesting facts as to how it is a ritual to donate lamps at the Valmiki Ashram in Pulpall in Wayand district and in spite of the large number of nilavilakkus (floor lamps), nothing ever gets stolen. 

The Lighting of Naranga Vilakku

The classification of lamps into suspension, stationery and portable lamps is well elucidated.  The significance of the Vriksha (tree) vilakku also called aluvilakku (al refers to the sacred banyan tree) with its leaves acting as the mini lamps is well explained with reference to the Chettikulangara Bhagavathi Temple in Alappuzha district which houses the largest aluvilakku with a whopping 1001 wicks.  The insightful interpretation which compares the seven levels of the quintessential Nilavilakku to the seven chakras of the human body as explained by Vishnu Namboothiri, a former chief priest at Sabrimala is again interesting. The reference to the sculptures of the Lakshmideepa inside the Sreebelipura corridor of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple as well as the description of the Deeparadhana in the temple along with the sequence of portable lamps used is equally engaging. 

Deepalakshmi Sculptures in the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple

Cosmic Intermediary between the Sacred and the Mundane

The book also throws light on the significance of the oil lamp in festivals like the Lakshadeepam, Bhadradeepam. Ashtami of Vaikom and the famous Makaravilakku in Sabarimala.  The legendary Vadavilakku of the Ettumanoor Shri Mahadeva temple which is believed to be burning from the last four hundred years is also noteworthy.  The lamp today is connected to a motorized tank with a capacity of 4000 litres to circulate the overflowing oil.

The book also focuses on the role of the oil lamp in native art forms like Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Tholpavakoothu, and Mudiyettu.  Gathering inputs from Margi Madhu, a prominent artist of Kutiyattam which is a nearly 2000-year-old theatre tradition, the book reveals how the nilavilakku occupies a central position on the stage lending a mystical three-dimensional light and shadow element which enhances the performance.  Further the importance of the three wicks, the sequence in which it is lit and other unique customs associated with the lamp is a revelation.  Similar details about the Attavilakku or Kalivilakku used in Kathakali forms are highlighted including how the lamp acts as a focal point for the artists during the entire course of the performance.  It is also known to improve the concentration of the artists. 

Moosaris – Keepers of the Tradition

The book also throws spotlight on the ancient craft of lamp making with inputs from the artisans in the traditional lamp making centres of Kunhimangalam and Payyanur in Kannur.  Mannar in Alappuzha and Irinjalakuda in Thrissur are other places in the state where lamps are made. Like most handicrafts, this one too is a skill that is passed on orally from generation to generation with the number of people involved dwindling gradually.  For example, according to the book, in Kunhimangalam there were about 80 families practising metal art a few decades ago but the number is now an abysmal ten. 

Iconography of Deepam is available on Kairali Books and Amazon.  

Pic credit Indu Chinta

This article was originally published in South First.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Iconography of Deepam – Celebrating the Traditional Lamps of Kerala

  1. Very Nice Review, Commendable.
    (I am sure reviewer enjoyed reading the book completely)

    About Book :
    No words, just applause.
    There is lot of hard work behind this book. Honorable.

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