Significance / Importance of Diya (earthern lamps) in Hindu festival Diwali
Diya in Indian culture and tradition is associated with many significant ceremonies and rituals. Deepavali is just the time to collect them
It is the custom in many South Indian families to include a silver diya in the list of things a bride prepares to set up her new home. Usually, this lamp, heavy, ornate and costly, will form a ritualistic part of her new home, to be used in religious ceremonies and other family celebrations, when polished and shining, filled with oil and glowing wicks, it will be the cynosure of many eyes.
For Hindus especially, the lamp is replete with symbolism and significance. It illuminates, they feel, not only our physical surroundings but also our mind, soul and spirit.
Traditionally, of course, the lamp was lit with oil, or ghee and held wicks made of cotton.
Now there are lamps and lamps, and lighting a lamp merely means to illuminate by whatever means handy. So, in modern homes we may even be bemused by the sight of an electric incandescent bulb shining beside a tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, Holy Basil) plant in the family courtyard.
The sweet-smelling tulsi plant may also soon become the indestructible, no-water-needing, easy-to-clean synthetic plastic, like so many house plants nowadays. One can never say what we may do to make life easier!
Fire plays a very vital role in most of our ceremonies and rituals. Our ancient culture classifies 49 different kinds of fire or Agni which range from the Vedic sacrificial fires of religious ceremonies to the leaping all-consuming fires of the funeral pyre.
Fire cleanses, purifies, destroys and witnesses. The lamp is a representative of the mighty Agni. With its soft, soothing glow, it dispels gloom and darkness. “Lead kindly light,” said the poet, “amidst the encircling gloom.”
Speciality of Diya (earthen lamps)
Every part of our country has its own specialty of the diya or deepam. Perhaps, the most beautiful and intricately designed ones can be found only in South India. Here, every household has the customary vellaku or the lamp with the tall central stand. It is usually made of silver or brass.
The simple ones have a single saucer-shaped vestibule with pointed beaks at regular intervals to accommodate the wicks. Most lamps provide for 5 wicks.
The kuthi-vellaku of Tamil Nadu is a thing of great beauty. Its central stem is very decorative and terminates at the top in the shape of a lotus petal, a peacock or even an elephant’s head.
Kuthi-vellakus also come in several tiers. It is an ethereal scene to view when all the wicks are lit and glowing in the mellow golden-hued lamp.
Lamps are hung from the ceiling too in some homes, especially at doorways. Some are bracketed to walls. Most modern decors use lamps to add the special ethnic touch. Although these are rarely lit, the gleaming diyas add real beauty to every room.
A lamp can be an ideal gilt item given on festivals. Choose one from the wide variety available in the market these days.
The deepams of Kerala are squatter and heavier and often made of golden-coloured bell metal. These are not as ornately designed as those of Tamil Nadu but have a unique attraction of their own.
Lighting the lamp at dusk is a ritual which is rarely overlooked by a Keralite homemaker. It is supposed to bring in prosperity, peace and happiness to the inmates.
The daily lighting of the lamp near the place of worship in the household is a must for most families. The lamp is always kept facing the deity. For the purist, the number of wicks used in the lamp too is important. 2 or 5 are the right numbers.
Three wicks are not used in many communities unless it is for an unhappy event as when a lamp is kept lighted by the side of a deceased person before the funeral.
It has become a fashion to inaugurate a function with the lighting of a lamp. Indeed, it is a very beautiful symbolic way of depicting the beginning of an auspicious event, for the lighted lamp stands for the remover of evil and gloom.
It is during Deepavali (Diwali) that lamps gain a special importance for one of the chief features of this festival is the lighting of lamps. Mention of the festivities of Deepavali can be found in the Arabic work Tarikh ul Hind which literally means “The Chronicles of India” by the intrepid traveling geometrician, historian and philosopher, Alberuni, in which he gives a very graphic and clear description of Deepavali, as celebrated in India a thousand years ago!
This 11th century Muslim traveler in his work says:
“The first kartik on new moon’s day when the sun marches in Libra is called Dibali. Then people bathe, dress festively, make presents to each other of betel leaves and areca nuts: they ride to the temples to give alms and play merrily with each other till noon. “In the night, they light a great number of lamps in every place so that the air is perfectly clear. The cause of this festival is that Lakshmi, the wife of Vasudeva, once a year liberates Bali, the son of Virocana, who is a prisoner in the seventh earth and allows him to go out into the world.”
How remarkably similar are the celebrations of so many years ago and our present-day ones!
Lighting lamps during Deepavali is usually associated with Shri Ram’s triumphant return to Ayodhya but there are several other interesting legends attached to it. After the sun crosses into Libra in the month of kartik, it was believed that it became emaciated and weak, as it had traversed over Virgo the middle portion of the zodiac.
Also, its warmth was much diminished as revealed in the start of the cooler days of winter. But this disturbed people who endeavored to invigorate the sun by lighting rows and rows of lamps to warm it up!
Several names have been given to this twinkling lamp festival through the ages: Yaksha ratri, Mahimani, Deepastava, Deep-mallika, Deepmala, Deepa-prati-padostava, Sukah ratri, and many more. Today it is commonly known as Deepavali or Diwali, the festival of lights.
Diya for Meditation
The lighted lamp is used for concentration of the mind during meditation, and lit in doorways for the benefit of the weary traveler. It is used as a sacred and auspicious motif for wedding and greetings, and cupped between 2 sheltering palms, the lighted lamp, emblem of the Indian Life Insurance Corporation, symbolizes life and security.
The car festivals observed by temples of Karnataka and Pun are incomplete without the placing of dozens of lighted lamps on the edges of the chariots which are drawn down the roads of the towns.
We encounter lighted lamps in all kinds of places and milieus through the length and breadth of our vast country simply because for us the glowing diya is sacred.
At the spectacular Ganga puja at Hardwar, there are hundreds of lighted lamps, each placed in a small leaf cup which is set afloat in the river at night. The twinkling minuscule lamp-boats look exquisitely beautiful, as they moved tranquilly down the waters.
It was S.L.Haldankar, the famed painter of Kerala, who immortalized the humble lamp in his famous painting of woman with lamp. Even today, no one can see the beautifully realistic glow of the lamp falling on the woman’s face without getting a lump in the throat.
And then, of course, who can forget Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, as she was lovingly called by the wounded soldiers of the Crimean War.
There is such a mind-boggling variety of lamps available in the markets these days that it is easy to choose one for gifting on any occasion, be it a wedding or a birthday. There can be no such thing as having too many lamps in the house. They can blend into any decor and add an artistic touch to the surroundings.
Light a lamp today and let it illuminate your way through life!