A fine example of the skill of traditional craftsmen
Saturday, 17 August 2013 00:00
By D.C. Ranatunga
One of the best examples of the ingenuity of our traditional craftsmen is the ‘eth pahana’ (lantern of the elephant) recovered from an ancient dagoba dating back to the 12th century AC. This unique oil lamp had been found among the relics in Kota Vehera at Dedigama – a little beyond Warakapola on the Colombo-Kandy road.
Kota Vehera – also known as Suthigara Cetiya – has been built by king Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186) as a memorial on the location he was born. According to historical records, in 1070 Prince Vijayabahu (1055-1110) defeated the Chola invaders who ruled from Polonnaruwa. He himself continued Polonnaruwa as the capital and appointed his sister Mitta’s son Manabharana as a sub-king in Ruhuna.
Following an invasion of Ruhuna, Manabharana escaped to Dedigama and started ruling the Maya region with Dedigama as the administrative capital. It is here that his son, Parakramabahu, was born. When he ultimately became king and started ruling from Polonnaruwa, he had not forgotten his birth-place and built the dagoba. Just as flowers are offered to the Buddha, lighting of oil lamps is also practised to venerate the Enlightened One. A simple ‘pol thelpahana’ – a little clay lamp using coconut oil – is lit in most Buddhist homes every evening in front of the Buddha statue along with the offering of flowers and lighting a joss stick. A narrow white wick is lit which goes on till the oil in the clay lamp is over.
More elaborate lamps are also used and a common feature in most temples is the ‘dolosmahepahana’ – the lamp that burns throughout day and right through the years. Usually a big brass lamp is used for this purpose. It is set up in a glass cage built specially to suit the size of the lamp. Oil is poured through a pipe fitted on to the lamp a few feet away. An opening is provided for the devotees to pour the oil.
In the not-so-elaborate oil lamps, if the lamp is required to maintain its flames for a considerable length of time, there should be a sufficient quantity of oil in the receptacle. It’s often seen when ‘pirith’ throughout the night either at a temple or a home, the small clay lamps are constantly refilled. At the same time, the oil level has to cover the wick to just below the tip which is lit. Otherwise, the suction of oil through the wick to the burning area will be insufficient and the wick will get burnt. To meet both these conditions the oil is kept in a shallow but large receptacle.
As one walks into the National Engineering Heritage Gallery in the Colombo Museum, the first thing that catches the eye is the unique ‘eth pahana’ from Kota Vehera. The lamp is seen hanging from a chain. The delicately carved figure shows the elephant carrying two riders.
The explanatory note in the display unit explains how the ‘eth pahana’ operates. The elephant made of bronze stands in the middle of a tray filled with oil. Its stomach serves as a reservoir for the oil. The elephant can be removed from the tray and by inverting oil can be filled to the stomach through a hole on one of its forelegs using a pipe.
When the level of the oil in the tray goes below the bottom level of the pipe in the leg, while the lamp is burning and consuming oil, air enters the elephant’s stomach through the opening and the build-up of atmospheric presence inside the reservoir causes the oil inside to flow out on to the tray through a tiny opening in the elephant’s genital organ.
The oil will flow even after the opening is covered with oil until such time that the air pressure inside the reservoir goes below the atmospheric pressure by an amount equal to the pressure developed by the height of oil inside the elephant.
The craftsman who created the lamp had taken great care to see that even the chain of the lamp is skilfully crafted. Figures of female dancers and drummers have been used in the chain. The figure of the elephant stands under an archway which also shows some fine work. The high quality of the elephant figure and other elements has drawn the attention of many overseas scholars who have showered praise on the skill of the craftsman.