Symbolism of the lamp at the Sanctum

There is always a temple in the center of every town in many rural parts of South India. The main road through the town center invariably passes along the front entrance of the temple. Walking has been the most common mode of transport for local travel for most people in rural India. It is true even today despite the economic growth of modern India. The many travels inside a village, between the villages or the less frequent visits to the nearby larger town always require walking past the main entrance of several temples.

Temples have a well-defined architecture. The main idol is placed in the sanctum, which has only one entrance facing the front side of the temple. The sanctum is surrounded by a number of perimeter walls creating a set of concentric hall ways between them. There are several entrances, usually one in the middle of each of the four walls of the square or rectangular shaped perimeter walls. The doors are precisely at the middle. In other words you have a geometrically symmetric arrangement, with several entrance ways aligned neatly with each other. As a result, any one at the main entrance can have an unimpeded view of the sanctum. This architectural feature of the temple is marvelous. Any one strolling along the road can take a moment to offer their prayers, with a direct line of sight to the idol!

As a young boy, I grew up in a rural part of Tamil Nadu, one of the states in Southern India, abundant with temples. I lived in a village. Our elementary and middle schools were located in the nearby town. The high school was located in the larger town little farther away. Hence every day one could see the young lads walking in groups going to the school along the road in the morning and returning home in the evening. Girls had a similar daily parade, but customs required that the boys and girls stay in their respective groups!

Religion permeates all aspects of life in rural India. It is true even today. In fact much of Hindu life is expected to be carried out by the mortals as the life of the God on earth. This implies that honesty, nobility, truthfulness, moral conduct and compassion are expected to be the second nature. They are not acquired habits, to suit the time and circumstances. These are the characteristics you display in all aspects of daily life. It is through such a way of life one identifies with God. This practice oriented value system is reinforced through daily worship to God at home, at the temple as well as in all your thoughts and deeds. You initialled the top of each page you wrote with a symbol to signify God! If you kicked something intentionally and with disrespect, grand ma was always around to chastise you with “Be careful! God is watching you”.

This constant reminder of God’s presence everywhere could not be ignored, particularly when you are passing by the main entrance of the temple, every day.  With the sanctum of God visible without any obstruction, behind the properly aligned doorways and with all the doors wide open, you were required to take note of the God’s presence ! Hence there was a tradition that as you passed by the temple entrance you take a moment to bow your head and offer your salutations to the God and then move on. No matter how slow or how rushed you were, there was always enough time to exercise this ritual! It would be hundreds of times that I had offered such salutation while passing by the temple entrances.

Even after decades, I clearly remember one aspect of this ritual. With the sanctum generally deep inside and far away, behind the many entrance doors, the idol could be hardly seen from that distance. The larger the temple less were the chances to view the idol in our road side worship. But, in every instance one could recognize the sanctum through the steady glow of the oil lamp placed near the idol. In due course the steady and un-flickering flame of the oil lamp became the visible representation of the idol itself.

Philosophy provides the reasoning behind the ideals we seek to live by in our daily life. It is an analytical pathway to better understand the visible and invisible. Idols we worship are the visible symbols of the invisible ideals. In those early days, the un-flickering glow of the lamp – deep inside the sanctum – was our visible symbol of the idol. When we could see the flame of the oil lamp, we implicitly understood that we had witnessed the idol and the God it represents! Now, after many years of study and reflection I wonder if this glow of the lamp deep inside the sanctum is more than a substitute for the invisible idol. I wonder if this lamp in the sanctum and its visible glow from far away is  also a visible  symbol of the philosophy (which often is elusive and hence appears to be far beyond our reach) itself?

“The un-wavering smile of a Yogi (one of self-control and constant internal reflection) is like the glow of a steady, un-flickering flame of the lamp”     B.G. 6. 19.

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2 Responses to Symbolism of the lamp at the Sanctum

  1. Jay says:

    Nice article with two beautiful pictures! I grew up in Chennai, which had a rural charm for a big city 35 years ago which is currently missing. I still remember even people traveling by bus instinctively turning and bringing their palms together in an instant prayer when the bus passed the temple where the Hanuman deity was clearly visible from the street. If your timing coincided with the priest offering “Aarti”, it was considered auspicious and made your day!


  2. Sundararajan says:

    All of us have immense faith in the practices as they are deep rooted. That is the way we are brought up. Later on, we are supposed to question to find the meaning of every practice. Our ancestors have been such great men of wisdom, that they devised such methods which are so essential for the very harmony of the society.
    In several parts of the world, we see the unrest in societies. If you see the root cause of all such unrest, it is always mindless religion which is divorced from society.
    The lamp! It gives light and heat. The lamp can be seen from a distance. But if you want to feel the heat, you have to get closer. May be that is the philosophy.
    “God is Omnipresent, But if you want to feel Him, you need to get closer”
    May be our practice of feeling the heat of the arati flame and transferring that heat to our eyelids symbolizes that.


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