Meenakshi’s lamp

When a Tamil Iyer girl gets married, she is given brass and silver lamps, or vilakku as they are known in Tamil, to aid her in the many rituals and ceremonies associated with her being an Iyer wife, an Iyer daughter-in-law, etc. It is a tradition that is followed even today by many Iyer families, the community that I belong to.

When my paternal grandmother Meenakshi N (1910–1989) got married in 1922, she too was given her own brass and silver vilakku. Among the 6–7 vilakku given to her, is the one featured here in this blog post. Nearly 3 feet tall, this bronze vilakku was not bought off the racks in a store, but was specially commissioned and made at her house. That is, the lamp-maker came to Meenakshi N’s father’s house with his implements and made it as per the specifications given to him.

My mind still boggles at how this must have been done and the preparation that would have gone into making the vilakku. To begin with, an auspicious day and time would have been set after consulting the panchangam or the almanac. A coconut would have been broken before the start of the lamp-making process, prayers offered… As for the lamp-making process itself, I wouldn’t even know where to start imagining!

Meenakshi's Lamp

Since Meenakshi N moved cities at regular intervals after her marriage, it was cumbersome to transport this vilakku from one city to another. It was left at her sister’s house in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) for safekeeping.

A close-up of Meenakshi's lamp

I first saw this lamp when it arrived at our house after Meenakshi N’s death. The lamp had not been in use for many years and had dulled with age. But this did not diminish its appeal or hide its clean and simple design. On the contrary, the antique look that the vilakku had developed over the years had its own charm, and once my mother had cleaned it with some tamarind and lime, the full extent of the vilakku’s beauty was revealed.

The vilakku gleamed like gold. In fact, I even remember asking my mother in an awed whisper if it was made of gold ! The cleaning also revealed an inscription at the base of the vilakku in Tamil, which reads “Meenakshi”.

Meenakshi, as written in Tamil

Today, the vilakku occupies pride of place in my apartment and is lit on special occasions like Diwali or Karthigai. My mother still cleans the vilakku herself not trusting anyone else, particularly me, to do a good job ! The photographs posted here were taken after one such round of cleaning.

As per tradition, such vilakku are inherited by the daughter(s)-in-law of the house, just as my mother inherited this vilakku from Meenakshi N, her mother-in-law. I am wondering if I should persuade my mother to break tradition and let her daughter inherit this 88-year old vilakku. 😉

15 thoughts on “Meenakshi’s lamp

  1. I thought it would be hard for you to outdo yourself after the wonderful post on your family, with those awesome pictures. But this is one up on the previous one !!
    The writing is not just as exquisite and minimalistic as the beautiful lamp belonging to your grandmother, it also it shines like burnished gold…
    Loved this post..

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  2. I had failed to notice the apostrophe in Meenakshi and wondered what a Meenakshi vilakku looks like. I have only seen and own a Kamakshi vilakku, you see 🙂 But yes, it looks wonderful. I too have a similar one, albeit a silver one, about a foot tall that I got from my mother-in-law. I only light it on festivals and special occasions but it looks lovely when all the five wicks are lit.

    Hope you inherit the vilakku. I am sure your mother will agree. I would have given it to my daughter if I had had one, but I don’t 😦

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  3. As your brother, I will tell Amma to hand over the lamp to you. That should take care of the traditions and history. The lamp is best if it stays where it is presently.

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  4. What a beautiful lamp, Sudha, and what a beautiful story behind it! I love the way you make these little things around your house so special with your words. Loved reading this post. 🙂

    This makes me realise – I have so much of your blog left to discover. Yet. 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much, TGND. Everything around us has a story and for me the way the lamp was made is what got me hooked. It speaks of an age and time that I have only read or heard about. There is a lot of stuff at my house that belonged to my grandparents or great grandparents and the stories behind them are so fascinating. I have yet to write about them, though. 🙂

      Hope you enjoy reading through my old posts !

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  5. You have a wonderful blog here. The lamp indeed looks lovely. No wonder you would like to keep it! Family heirlooms are precious, aren’t they? Will be back to read from your archives. You have a fan 🙂

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    1. A very warm welcome to “My Favourite Things”, Alarmelvalli, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Yes, the lamp is lovely but what attracts me to it is the story and the history associated with it.

      Thank you also for your very kind words about my blog and hope you enjoy the other posts as well. Happy reading !

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  6. Sudha madam

    Namaste and Happy Diwali wishes to you, to your family members and friends.

    Sudha madam thanks for sharing very valuable information about “Meenakshi Lamp” which is your inheritance. Sudha madam i am very much impressing this article because i am also fascinating on Lamps.

    Sudha madam this is my Lamps of India which i shared in my Heritage of India blog.

    http://indian-heritage-and-culture.blogspot.in/2013/09/lamps-of-india.html

    Sudha madam please look into my Lamps of India message and share your valuable comments.

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  7. I have seen your grandmother’s picture in the last picture and I was dumbstruck on seeing her.She is so beautiful.Infact she looks like a Bollywood heroine.I am just wondering how beautiful she would have been when she got married at the young age of 12.

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  8. The oldest villaku that I have seen is of my amma’s.She got married in 1937 to my father in Jamshedpur.You know it was the first Tamil Brahmin marriage over there.My mother said that it was a very new thing there.They had to bring the priests,Brahmin Thali,Madisar from Kolkata and Villaku from Madras.Even I have a picture of her wedding.My grandmom too had her Villaku but unfortunately it was lost when they finally shifted from Ballygounge to Lake Gardens in Kolkata

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