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  • Aal Vilakku

Bronze
18th century

Kerala, Southern India

The aal vilakku or banyan lamp is so called because its design is inspired by that of the banyan tree. The tiered branches and leaves of the ‘lamp-tree’ form myriad small oil holders and often an auspicious number such as 1001. Such lamps are usually large and reserved for ritual use in Hindu temples. Devotees donate oil or ghee for the many receptacles of the aal vilakku in return for special poojas or prayers conducted on their behalf at the temple, a phenomenon in keeping with the symbolism of the banyan in Hindu mythology as the kalpavriksha or wish-fulfilling tree. In the context of its role within the temple, the many-branched banyan is likened to the shelter given by god to his devotees.

This example probably belonged to a Vaishnavite shrine. The circular base of the lamp is embellished with lotus petals, symbols of purity. Two diminutive female figures stand at two corners of the lamp’s base, presumably those facing the devotees. Both stand in the sinuous tribhanga pose, one hand held bent at the waist and pointing to the ground, the other holding a weapon – the conch and the shankha respectively. The faces of the figures are leonine suggesting an association with the avatar of Vishnu as Narasimha or his female counterpart, the goddess Narasimhi. Both figures wear the kiritamukuta, the crown of glory.

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