‘Iconography of Deepam’: Author Indu Chinta’s ode to the unexplored legacy of Kerala’s traditional lamps

A metalsmith once made a visit to the Sri Mahadeva Temple, an ancient Shiva Temple in Ettumanoor, a town situated in the central region of present-day Kerala. The artisan had crafted a suspension lamp as a gift for the temple, but the temple priests initially declined to accept it, expressing concerns about the substantial amount of oil it would consume to keep it lit. In response, the metalsmith confidently stated that the lamp could burn even without oil.

Unexpectedly, a stranger appeared and took the lamp, placing it inside the belikalpura (a structure that houses the main offering stone) of the shrine. Suddenly, the sky rumbled with thunder, and lightning struck, igniting the lamp. Remarkably, it has never ceased burning since that moment. This tale is just one of the many legends surrounding the famous Vada Vilakk of the Ettumanoor temple. “Valiya Keda Vilakku, with repeated use, took on the colloquial expression Vada Vilakku. However, both terms indicate a sense of eternity: ‘valiya’ means large and ‘keda’ means that which cannot be extinguished. Similarly, ‘vada’ refers to something that does not wilt,” explains author Indu Chinta.

It is the fascination for such legends and historical narratives that made Chinta to switch from pursuing a career in environmental engineering to be an explorer of culture. A recipient of the Kerala Folklore Academy Award in 2020, Chinta recently published a unique book, Iconography of Deepam, on the traditional lamps in Kerala.

“The project began with a request from the government of Madhya Pradesh,” the author recounts. “They approached me to write an article for a special publication by the Triveni Museum, which was scheduled for release on Republic Day earlier this year. The museum intended to establish a new section dedicated to showcasing various lamps from different regions of India. They sought my representation for the state of Kerala. That is how my journey into this subject began,” she adds.

She further says: “As I started working on the article, my exploration grew more profound. They also granted me the freedom to decide the direction in which I wanted to take this study. It became apparent that, despite their ubiquity in religious ceremonies and significant life events such as births, deaths, marriages, naming ceremonies, and housewarming rituals, there was surprisingly limited written or published material available on the topic. Consequently, I decided to delve into the lamp’s cultural context, investigating its role within cultural and ritualistic systems.”

It was in 2017, during her time at IIT Madras, that Chinta’s profound passion for culture was kindled, much like the oil that fuels the traditional lamps she would later write about in her book. “Tamil Nadu is a state teeming with culture, and my heart has always been close to the preservation of culture and the art of writing. During my time at IIT Madras in mid-2017, I began to feel that the moment was ripe for me to make the leap from my current pursuits to a full-time exploration of writing and culture,” she says.

“I embarked on weekend journeys, even in and around Chennai, where Tamil Nadu’s rich cultural tapestry never ceased to captivate me. The thought gradually formed in my mind that the time had come to transition into a full-time engagement with writing and culture,” she adds.

Author Indu Chinta

Chinta’s travels took her through the vibrant landscapes of southern Karnataka and brought her to the northern reaches of Kerala, to Kasargod and Kannur. “In Kannur, a chance encounter with an enthusiastic Italian couple who had recently witnessed a Theyyam performance left me curious and inspired. I decided to attend one of these performances myself, initially with the intention of writing an article for a newspaper. I watched Thee Chamundi or perhaps Putiya Bhagwati, one of my earliest experiences with Theyyam, and I was utterly awestruck,” she recalls.

The tradition of Theyyam encompasses the rituals, customs, and traditions linked to the temples and sacred groves of Malabar. In the eyes of the local population, Theyyam serves as a conduit to the divine, and they actively seek blessings from the Theyyam performers. “I returned to Kannur, drawn back by the irresistible allure of Theyyam, and this time, I decided to document my experiences through both words and photographs. It quickly became evident that the written word alone could not do justice to this incredible tradition. As my journey unfolded, I cancelled my return ticket to Hyderabad and spent the entire Theyyam season in Kannur,” she says.

“The culmination of my work during this transformative period was my first book, Theyyam: Merging with the Divine. It is hard to put into words the enchantment and revelation I experienced. ‘Magical’ would be an understatement – it was truly an epiphany.”

Chinta started the work for Iconography of Deepam also with trips to Kannur—to Kunhimangalam and Payyannur, two ancient centres of lamp-making in the southern state.

“The artisans I saw there are truly remarkable, not just for their craftsmanship but for the remarkable continuity of their traditions across many generations, especially in Kunhimangalam,” she recalls.

“They have upheld these practices for centuries, living in tight-knit communities tucked away from the main roads. I was profoundly impressed by the dedication of the younger generation, who consider their craft a cherished inheritance and take immense pride in it. Even young girls displayed a keen interest, closely watching their fathers, uncles, or brothers in the workshop, eager to learn. It is a tight-knit community, and knowledge is transferred through oral traditions.”

In Kunhimangalam, the lamp-making families possess something called Dhyana Slokas, which are essentially their trade secrets. These are closely guarded and not disclosed to outsiders. Over the years, this knowledge has been passed down orally. “These Dhyanaslokas play a vital role, particularly in the handcrafting process as opposed to machine production,” says Chinta. “They dictate the precise proportions of metal to use when creating specific types of lamps. In Kunhimangalam, 33 distinct types of lamps are made, each with its dedicated dhyana sloka outlining the exact measurements. The artisans begin their work with a prayer, infusing their craft with a sense of divinity and deep reverence for each lamp they create.”

Iconography of Deepam delves into the significance of lamps not only within religious rituals but also in the realm of performance arts, including Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Tholpavakoothu, and Mudiyettu. It uncovers the intriguing history behind why Kerala does not celebrate India’s grand Diwali festival with much fanfare and instead observes its unique Festival of Lights.

While scholars began studying Kerala’s oil lamps almost a century ago, cultural expert Carol Radcliffe Bolon of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., recognises Chinta as the first author to put the lamps of Kerala into their full cultural setting.

The author is currently in the process of preparing for the publication of another book dedicated to the art of Theyyam. She is also gearing up to explore and document the captivating stories that lie concealed within the culture that surrounds us.