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The Significance of Deepam during Prayers in India

Oil lamps were a part of various traditions and cultures around the world, until electric lights became popular. The earliest known oil lamp can be dated back to the Chalcolithic Age, about 4500 to 3300 BC. Today, their use is limited to only a few homes, more often only for visual appeal. But there is a lot more to the humble oil lamp, than its obvious use of providing light and aesthetics.

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Light is significant to us because of how our eyesight works. Had our vision been like any other animal, light wouldn’t be so significant to us. Historically, the lamp was an essential part of our homes because of two reasons. One, there were no electric lights. Two, homes were built from organic materials so people couldn’t afford to open up huge windows.

In India, It is also believed that an oil lamp is lit to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes the vices and the cotton wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the vices get slowly exhausted and the ego too perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards and similarly one should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.

Light symbolizes the absence of darkness, grief & unhappiness. Hence, it’s a deep rooted Indian tradition to light a lamp first before starting any auspicious event or ritual. Light also symbolizes knowledge. Which is why in almost all inaugural functions we light the Kuthu vilakku (vilakku meaning ‘deepam’ or ‘lamp’), a type of oil lamp with 5 to 9 spouts, symbolizing Knowledge removing ignorance as light removes darkness.

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Oil lamps were the source of light in the absence of candles before the invention of electrical lights. It is rather a customary practice to light the deepam twice,
both in the morning and evening. Normally, it is lit in the pooja or prayer room
before the deity. In fact, our daily worship has to start with the lighting of
the oil lamp. It has a great spiritual significance besides intellectual one too. This is again because Deepam signifies knowledge. With this knowledge, ignorance or darkness in us is dispelled and the fear is driven out.

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The lamps we light every day are different from the ones we light on auspicious days. While Kuthu Vilakku is lit to signify the beginning of any event or occasion. It signifies the three Gods Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva who are believed to be present in the Vilakku. At the base part is Bramha, the middle part Vishnu and the broad part on top is Shiva. The glow of the vilakku is represented as Goddess Lakshmi,the Light by Goddess Saraswati and the Heat by Goddess Parvati. The five petals or nozzles are said to represent the five elements of Nature — earth, water, fire, air and sky or space.12

During Kaarthigai Deepam, Rows of Agal vilakkus (Clay Oil lamps) are lit in every house. Karthigai is essentially a festival of lamps. The lighted lamp is considered an auspicious symbol. It is believed to ward off evil forces and usher in prosperity and joy. While the lighted lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, it is indispensable for Karthigai.

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In Telugu households, Kaartheeka maasam (month) is considered very auspicious. The Kartheeka month starts on the day of Deepawali. From that day till the end of the month, oil lamps are lit every day. On Kartheeka Pournami (full moon of Kartheeka month) oil lamp with 365 wicks, prepared at home, are lit in Lord Shiva temples.

For everyday prayers, one may light a Kamakshi Amman vilakku or Ashtalakshmi Vilakku, depending on the main deity of the household. There are various kinds of such vilakku with one spout and the deity is seated as the center motif. These lamps are said to bring in the presence of god in the form of light along with prosperity.

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