The central sculptural element above the oil pan of this temple hanging lamp is the goddess Lakshmi being lustrated or watered from the trunks of two caparisoned elephants in a form known as Gajalakshmi. This is a common depiction of Lakshmi in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India’s south.
It is the finest such hanging lamp that we have seen.
Gajalakshmi is shown seated on a lotus, flanked on each side by an elephant (gaja). She is shown as seated cross-legged in a Padmasana posture, and has two arms. In each of her upper pair of arms, she holds a lotus stem.
This aspect of Lashmi like most other aspects of the goddess represents prosperity, good luck, and abundance.
A finely pierced and very decorative aureole rises over the central group. Two small cobras are at the base of each side of the aureole and their tails are cleverly cast so that they run through the aureole and drape into the oil pan on the other side.
A protective kurtimukha mask has been cast into the top of the aureole. A finely cast bronze chain that terminates at the other end with a hanging hook emerges from the top of the aureole. The base of the chain incorporates a finely cast image of Ganesh in the first panel, and above the is a peacock or perhaps a sacred swan (hamsa) in another separately cast panel. A fleshy cast flower bud is above this.
The oil pan is of baluster form and has a waisted base which is engraved with lotus petal motifs.
Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort, is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. She is associated with light, hence the association of her image with lamps. The festival of Divali (the ‘festival of light’) is staged across India each year in her honour.
Such hanging lamps were used primarily in a temple context (Anderson, 2006, p. 47). They tended to be kept near the deity in the sanctum. Providing lamps to temples was considered a sacred at earning the donor merit. Often the gift entailed not only the lamp itself but the provision of a permanent endowment so that the temple could thereafter buy ghee or oil to operate the lamp. The endowment might take the form of money or gold but it might also be in the form of a gift of cows or buffaloes which were entrusted to cowherds who would milk the animals to obtain the ghee that could be delivered to the temple daily (Nagaswamy, 2006, p. 254).
The lamp here is of good size and not too heavy, allowing it to be suspended safely. It would have served as a focal point in a temple.
The example here is in excellent condition. It has a darkened patina from age, and is a superb example of lost-wax casting from South India.
Anderson, S., Flames of Devotion: Oil Lamps from South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2006.
Kelkar, D.G., Lamps of India, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, India, 1961.
Nagaswamy, R., Timeless Delight: South Indian Bronzes in the Collection of the Sarabhai Foundation, Sarabhai Foundation, 2006.