Sunday, October 19, 2003

Diyas down the ages
Roshni Johar

From aartideepams to margdeepams to rattandeepams, there are diyas suited to different occasions and purposes
From aartideepams to margdeepams to rattandeepams, there are diyas suited to different occasions and purposes

SINCE time immemorial, man has always been overawed by the sun, looking upon it as a great ball of fire in the heaven emitting light, also worshipping it as the life-giver. The diya is believed to represent this great fire. In Greek mythology, Prometheus got the fire from heaven to benefit mankind.

The candle substitutes the diya in Christianity. Its illuminating significance led Mahatma Gandhi to love this hymn of Cardinal Newman:

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home

Lead thou me on.

Since centuries, fire or agni has played a pivotal role in our rituals. The all-consuming fire cleanses, purifies and destroys. Our ancient literature classifies agni into 49 forms, ranging from Vedic sacrificial fires, havans, including those at weddings (as witness or sakshi), to the agnipariksha, etc.

The glowing diya depicting fire is held sacred in Indian culture, lighting up not only our environs but also our mind, soul and spirit. With its soft and soothing glow, it dispels evil, gloom and darkness.

Lore has it that as winter commences; the fiery sun’s warmth diminishes, so people light rows and rows of small lamps to invigorate it. This was the beginning of illuminations, which later came to mark auspicious events like coronations, inaugurations, weddings, victories, birth of a regent, birthdays, welcome ceremonies, festivals, etc. This practice is followed till today. As a symbol, the diya is a popular motif in wedding cards.

During the Gangamai Puja at Hardwar, thousands of small lamps are lit, each is placed in a leaf-cup and then set afloat in the tranquil river at night. The rath yatras of Jagannath Puri and Karnataka are incomplete without them being placed on the chariots. During meditation, a lighted diya serves as the focal point for the mind’s concentration. Even when a person dies, a diya is kept by the body’s side to show the soul the way to Heaven so that it doesn’t flounder in darkness.

Lighting lamps during Divali is linked with the welcome accorded to Lord Rama on his triumphant return to Ayodhya. Rows and rows of small diyas make the dark moonless amavasya night so beautifully bright, lending aptness to its name ‘ Deepavali’ — row of lamps. The Festival of Lights has been known by several names like Deep Mallika, Sukh Ratri, Yaksha Ratri, Mahimani, Deepastava and Deepa Prati Padostava.

Some historians associate Divali with Raja Vikramaditya’s victory over the Huns, which was celebrated by lighting rows of clay lamps. His reign marked the onset of the Vikrami calendar.

However, the romance of the lamp dates back to before Divali. It is perhaps as old as the primitive man. Man in the early age rubbed two stones together to get a spark of light. Ancient paintings have been discovered in dark caves. Obviously, man could not have painted them without lights. Apparently, it was the caveman that lit the first lamp. Skulls and hollowed stones in which wicks of dry grass or moss were dipped in animal fat, formed the early lamps. Sea shells filled with melted animal fat with a twisted thin bark fixed in it as a wick lit by flintstones, were the later ones. Such lamps have been unearthed in Kosambi and Patliputra. Taxila University had pillars topped with lamps.

With the advent of pottery, clay lamps became popular. Harappa and Mohenjodaro excavations unearthed such lamps. Imaginative potters made clay diyas with spouts and those shaped like cocks, peacocks, birds, leaves, elephants, buffaloes, women, tiered ones, those that forked out like branches, etc.

As the years rolled by, lamps began to be made of metals like brass, copper, silver and gold, some embossed with enameling and made to look extremely ornamental. Undeniably, they added to the decor of palaces, temples and mansions of the rich. Rattandeepam were lamps studded with precious gems. There were specially designed aartideepams for prayers apart from the archanadeepam meant for offering. Ratrideepam were dim lamps suggestive of love-making. Some lamps were hung from trees —the vrikshadeepam. Lamps placed on paths to show the way to travellers were the margdeepam. Dwardeepams were hung from doorways or at entrances as a sign of welcome. Ancient texts mention akaashdeepam, the tradition of carrying bamboo poles with lamps at one end to show the way to the souls of ancestors, usually carried in November. South Indian households have silver or brass lamps with a central stand called vellaku. A silver diya is a must in many South Indian brides’ dowry.

Social history informs of tribals’ singing and dancing in groups to offer lamps to please their deity, lamps being lit amidst the rangoli and dancers twirling with diyas in their palms, etc. In Kashmir, peacocks were worshipped with lamps. So really, Divali is not the only time when lamps are lit!

The journey of light saw the advent of candles, gas lights, hurricane lanterns and electric lights. But the flame of the little diya continues to twinkle and illuminate our lives.