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  • Annapakshi Thooku vilakku (hanging oil lamp)

Bronze
19th century
Kerala, Southern India

Thooku vilakku or hanging lamps crafted in bronze or brass are a common feature at temples and domestic shrines in Kerala. Traditionally, they were lit each day at dusk, before any other lamp was lit in the house. In addition to its functionality as a source of light, such oil lamps are also an important ritual element. Fire, worshipped since the Vedic period as a symbol of transforming energy, destruction and creation, is believed to embody the transcending of the self in the act of devotion. Fire may also be worshipped as an embodiment of the resident deity of the temple or shrine, revered by the devotee as the source and illuminator of all inner truth and awareness.

In this example, a peacock-like bird is perched atop a pot that serves as the lamp's fuel reservoir. The pot opens into a small receptacle for oil or ghee (clarified butter), lit with a cotton wick. The bird, although resembling a peacock, is the annapakshi, a mystical white-colored bird that symbolizes purity and divinity. The entire surface of the bird is finely incised and chased. The ornamental chain or changala would have been used to suspend the lamp from a ceiling beam or a bracket.

Despite their simplicity of form these lamps are a design marvel. The oil is stored in a spherical container from which the wick draws a drop at a time. The feedhole, the thickness of the wick, and the size of the air inlet are perfectly synchronized so that the oil or the wick does not require to be frequently replaced. Known as the 'eternal lamp', these may be hung at household shrines or temples. The endowment of perpetual lamps by devotees to a temple was considered a sacred service.

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