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  • Aal Vilakku with Vishnu

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 - 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.

The finial of this lamp is surmounted by the idol of Vishnu, suggesting that the lamp belonged to a Vaishnavite shrine. The deity has four arms - one holds a conch (shankha); the second, a chakra (discus); the third, a bow. The fourth hand is lowered and slightly bent at the elbow, and held as if to receive a bow. A prabhavali or halo forms an arch over the deity.and is thus viewed as a symbol of abundance, wisdom, and immortality. Garuda, the humanoid eagle mount of Vishnu is perched atop the tree, hands clasped in the gesture of reverence.




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