Dedigama’s Elephant Lamp – An Ingenious Creation

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Dedigama's Elephant Lamp

Dedigama is world famous for its elephant lamp. Two of these lamps similar in design were found buried in the relic chamber of the Sutighara Cetiya of Dedigama. This unique archaeological exhibit, gives an insight into the advanced state of technological development during the reign of King Parakramabahu. The lamp belongs to the twelfth century A.D.The elephant lamp is an ingenious creation of an unknown craftsman. The lamps are of the hanging type and of a unique design.

A figure of an elephant carrying a rider on its shoulder predominates the oil receptacle. The hollow of the elephant’s stomach serves as a vessel and a reservoir for the oil, while one of the elephant’s forelegs serves as a funnel for pouring in the oil.

The elephant figure stands in the middle of a basin which can also be filled with oil. When the level of the oil in the basin goes down below the level of the hole in the foreleg of the elephant which serves as a funnel, a mechanical devise based on hydrostatic principles causes the oil to flow into the receptacle through the genital organ of the elephant, and the flow automatically ceases when the oil again reaches the level of the elephant’s feet.

Interestingly a lamp with an oil reservoir working on hydrostatic principles with oil pouring out of the beak of a bird is found in the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The chain of the lamp too is modeled with the greatest artistic skill – it being incorporated with the figures of female dancers and drummers.

The torana or the archway under which the elephant figure stands is also of fine work.

Many scholars worldwide have accepted that the standard of plastic moulding of the elephant and rider, the torana, the chain and the lamp itself are of the highest order, and shows a very high standard of achievement.

The excavations conducted by the Department of Archaeology at the Sutighara Cetiya revealed that the upper chamber contained, at the centre, a pedestal built of brick in the shape of the model of the cetiya as the architects had conceived it – a stupa in the lotus shape (padmakara). On this pedestal was a reliquary of thin sheet gold 4.5 inches in height and studded with precious stones. There were niches in the four walls of the chamber, and in each of these was a statuette of the Buddha of about 4 inches high encased in gold sheets under makara torana arches ornamented with gems. At the four corners of the chamber were four lamps – two of which were the elephant lamps while the other two resembled a lotus bud design. All of these lamps had soot and pieces of burnt wick in the oil containers. It was proof that these were placed lit when the chamber was closed.Many more valuable and interesting treasure were discovered at this site. There is an interesting documentation of the excavations carried out and a catalogue of the finds in the separate chambers (the upper chamber, the second chamber, the eight satalite chambers, the central chamber and the lowermost chamber) by C.E. Godakumbura.

The Dedigama Archaeological museum has a model of the relic chambers and contains some very interesting exhibits documented according to the chamber in which they were found. It serves as a good example of illustrating the building of a relic chamber within the dome of a stupa. The gentleman in charge, at the museum, you will find, is well informed and no doubt will heighten your understanding and appreciation of the sacred relics buried in the past.


by Kishanie S. Fernando
Daily Mirror

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