Lamp makers of Nachiarkoil

Crafts

Lamp makers of Nachiarkoil

The Vastu Sastra has an entire chapter devoted to the features, classification and production of temple lamps. The  Agamas (scriptures) describe the objects necessary for puja. Details can be obtained in them about the different types of lamps for different types of worship, and how the most important endowments of a devotee to the temple was a lamp. Much of the spirit of worship for the devotee is defined by the ambience created by these traditional lamps.

In the one thousand-year-old Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur can be found details of the endowments by the 10th century A D Chola emperors for the maintenance of the temple lamps. Strictly specified number of cattle had to be endowed along with the lamp to keep it burning. This was usually in the form of 32 cows, 96 sheep, 16 buffaloes or three gold sovereigns. Local shepherds were entrusted with the task of maintaining the cattle and to supply ghee to keep the lamps going.

The most important centre for artisans practicing this one thousand-year-old craft is Nachiarkoil, a historic town in Thanjavur district. This is an unusual village where the occupation of an overwhelming majority of inhabitants  is lamp making. Here, gleaming lamps strung together weave arcs of swinging gold as they are carried from workshops to house. Nearly 200 craftsmen from 50 families are engaged in the craft. But, the lamp makers are in peril. Caught in the grip of middlemen, they find it difficult to keep afloat financially.

The artisans here produce lamps of  various shapes, sizes and designs. Enormous lamps dwarfing the craftsmen with their golden magnificence to tiny ones with just one wick face are made bringing a touch of the divine into the most humble home.
The Tamil Nadu handicrafts development corporation ‘Poompuhar’ has a brass and bell metal production centre which imparts training to artisans from Nachiarkoil and many of whom have moved on to set up their own private units. The superintendent of the centre, points out that the sand from the river bed around Nachiarkoil has a special quality that lends itself  ideally to the craft.

As in the case of bronze icons, the cire perdue or lost wax process, which is a traditional method of casting, is also followed during the production of these lamps. Till three decades ago, only one lamp could be made in the traditional method using a single mould. The introduction of the box type mould has facilitated an increase in production.
A wooden box made up of two equal halves is filled with river sand and the impression of the lamp is obtained. Molten bell metal is poured in the space created. The metal is cooled and a rough cast is obtained. The four or five separate parts, which when fitted together make up the lamp, are got by repeating the same process. The rough projections are eliminated by cutting and filling and the product is put through a lathe. The measurements are thus corrected and the excess metal shed. After the part is removed from the lathe, it is shaped and burnished. Finally with delicate taps of the chisel, the artisan ornaments the work with his own creative touches in the form of engraved designs of flowers and creepers.

But art connoisseurs feel that the use of the box mould has diluted the quality of the lamps and that the lamps made by the craftsman of olden days had more finesse. The figure to crown the lamp whether of the swan or the image of a deity (Ganesha, Lakshmi or Devi) are made separately using the lost wax process.A very popular design is the multi branched one with innumerable parrots on perches holding lamps in their beaks. Lamps crowned with the figure of Velankanni or the cross are also sought after.

In fact, the largest bronze oil lamp in the world is the one at the Koothattukulam Town Church (St Jude’s Shrine) in Kerala. This 1001 wicks bronze lamp has been manufactured (6640 kg weight, nine tier, 24.5 foot height) in Tamil Nadu. This is the biggest bronze oil lamp in the world. Between four and five in the morning, and from five to nine in the evening, all the  1001 oil wicks are lit sustained by the contributions from the devotees.

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