Din soona suraj bina
Aur chanda bin raina
Ghar soona deepak bina
Jyoti bi do nain…
Diya jalao, jag-mag jag-mag…K.L Saigal in the film TANSEN (1943)
Well, we did it one more time. When along with the curtains in the drawing room and the silver in the puja room, we laundered and polished and aired out our goodwill and charitableness, tarnished and dusty for a year’s non-use. No, no, don’t worry, I am not going to be Uncle Scrooge and ruin the lovely Diwali that everyone has just had with my grouchy bah and humbug. Instead I write today of a beautiful but perhaps dying Diwali tradition – the humble clay Diwali diya or earthen lamp.
Naturally, at the outset, let me say that I do not have any suitably weighty body of research that says that it will help cure this, that or the other ailment. So I realize that when I sing praises of what is after all a bit of mud, cotton and oil, I compete with that infinitely more snazzy, more convenient, no-mess, no-drip modern day marvel - electric decorative lights. Which not only come on at the mere flick of a switch (and go off as easily) and in so many chak-mak Diwali colours, but can also be made to “pulse” to the latest Jhankar beats. And no spoilsport breeze can ever blow them out. In comparison, my humble diyas are a messy, laborious rigmarole of cotton wicks and oil and the light is in just one boring colour that will tremble and shiver at the mercy of the faintest wisp of a breeze. So, defending the clay diya is like trying to defend the importance of art, dance, poetry and song in the school syllabus. At least in the case of song, there is enough research demonstrating what amazing things that a spot of music can do to your kids’ IQ. So, if not to introduce Munna to the joy of listening to the sweet, aching sound of Talat Mahmood pleading, “Jalte hain jiske liye, teri ankhon diye….”, then at least to boost up his mathematical skills, we will allow him a few music classes. But what “good” will a few silly, mud (oh, alright, clay, if you insist) diyas that we light once a year do for anyone?
Like I said, the dice aren’t loaded in my favour but let me try anyway….
"The Hindu does not worship an idol
Made of wood and clay.
He sees consciousness
Within the earthen-ness
And loses himself in it." Swami Vivekananda
Let me start with mud….er, I mean clay. The association of clay with creation and the circle of life is an ancient and universal one. As swiftly miraculously as it takes form, clay can be and is destroyed. Impermanence, change, regeneration – the cycle of life and its inexorable rhythm is embodied in clay and in the potter’s wheel. Even when it remains unformed in the soil, it is invaluable. It absorbs ammonia and other gases needed for plant growth and helps the soil to retain the fertilizing substances in manure. So, without clay, the womb of Mother Earth cannot hold on to its fertility. And out of a lump of clay can be born anything. A Pongal pot, a roof or floor tile, a Dussera gombe (doll), a kulhar, a Bankura horse. Or an Ayyanar deity, fiercely guarding the entrance of a village in Tamil Nadu. Or the 7500 strong terracotta army of life-size soldiers, horses and chariots that Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor had buried with him more than 2000 years ago. Or the 30,000 clay tablets that formed the library of King Sennacherib of Assyria (now partly in Iraq) who ruled from 704 to 681 B.C. Or the thousands of magnificent statues of Goddess Durga and Lord Ganesh that grace our lives for 10 days every year and then sink into oceans and rivers to become clay again.
Or a little clay diya. Or then, mankind itself….
It is said that Brahma fashioned man out of clay. Which makes him the first potter and so, ever since, potters in many parts of India and Nepal have “Prajapathi” as their family name. And the origin of the first earthen pot is equally sacred. During the sagar manthan or the churning the ocean, when the amrut or nectar finally came up, there was no vessel to collect it in. So Vishwakarma, architect of the gods (he designed Indralok, Dwarka, Lanka, Indraprastha to name only a few divine residences), divine sculptor and supreme craftsman, shaped some earth into a pot or kumbh. (So, the potter is called kumhar in Hindi and Kolkatta’s most famous potter’s colony, where the fabulous Durga statues are made every year for the Durga Puja celebrations is called Kumortoli.) Which is why many potters light a small diya as a mark of respect to the great Viswakarma before they start the day’s work.
And it is more than likely that that diya is a clay one and the oil in it will most likely be….
The Sanskrit generic word for oil is “taila” (Hindi – “tel”), said to have originated from the Sanskrit “tila” or sesame - an indication that sesame or gingelly oil’s status as the first among oils. Nurturer and healer, next only to ghee in its sattvic, calming nature, sesame oil carries in it all the wonderful qualities of its parent seed. It is said that the sesame seed formed when a drop of Vishnu’s sweat fell on the earth and in Ayurveda, it is considered one of the first foods of the earth. And so sesame oil, rated by the great sage Charaka as “shreshta” among oils, is indispensable in Ayurveda, used for everything from seasoning healing foods to treat orthopedic injuries and generally improve and rejuvenate the body’s vital systems. And it is this wonderful oil that is normally used in diyas. Why? Well, many say that the flame of a diya fuelled by ghee or sesame oil purifies the air around it. So, what else would we fill into the lamps that will light our way out of the darkness of all that is bad and sad and troubled into all that is good and happy and peaceful – both inside and outside us? How else would we welcome Goddess Laxmi into our homes but with the brave, beautiful, golden flame of a clay diyas?
Which brings me finally to…..Anjali. A lovely name for a girl and means “offering”. But what does it have to do with the diya? Ah, it is a beautiful connection. Cup both your hands together as we do when we offer something in a puja or when we accept a boon or prasadam. Now look carefully at the shape that your hands have formed. It is exactly the shape of a diya. (In Ayurveda, “anjali” is also the volume that can be held by your two cupped hands.) So, every little clay diya, made from the coming together of fire, water, air, space and sacred earth, filled with the sweet, peaceful, healing goodness of sesame oil that gives itself up so willingly to burn so bright and pure, is an offering, a prayer. In gratitude for life, that we have completed one more circle and ready to embark on another. Invoking all that is good and peaceful and healing and that we may have the power to deal with whatever life has in store for us. Remembering that like the clay of the diya, that everything we are, have, own – the new designation, the freshly Asian-painted house, the newly wed daughter-or-son-in-law, even the brand new 26’ plasma TV bought with the Diwali bonus - is only lent to us for a while. So, enjoy it while it is there and when like the oil in the diya, its time is up, give it back without grief….
So, my dear, dear readers, I hope that this Diwali, the humble little clay diya blessed each one of you and your homes with its simple, beautiful blessing.