J.E. writes that she found these lamps at her favorite thrift store, Destined for Grace, in Santa Barbara about four years ago.
The tag on them read: “From a Hindu Temple.” She wants to know what they are.
She writes they are carved stone and that she had to hire a trainer from her local gym to carry them from the store and into her car, then into her house. They weigh about 250 pounds each. You can see in the photo that they have been drilled for a central post and electrified. (This is a common theme in early lighting: taking something fabulous and making it into a lamp, because electricity in the beginning of the 20th century was rare, and lighting fixtures reflect that wonderment.)
What these lamps are is fabulous. Researching the form, I learned that the attribution to a temple may be correct because of their form.
They are square, and you see they have rounded, almost oval designs at the top, consisting of stylized lotus leaves and a central small lotus bulb in the canted corners.
The lotus form gave me a clue. Temples were built where lotus and other flowers bloomed. And since we are talking lotus, temples were built where water is featured and where water birds and their sounds thrive.
If water is not naturally available in the building of a sacred structure, the architect of a temple may include a pond for lotus and flowers — and of course birds, creatures of the sky, to the left of the structure.
Let me address the form. This is a pair of columns made into stone lamps that are shaped in a square.
The square is an element of “divine geometry,” which means that the shape we call square has echoes in the Hindu philosophy of what it means to be human and live a good life.
The four elements of a good life, echoed in that square (and echoed in Hindu architecture), are Artha (prosperity), Kama (desire), Dharma (ethics) and Moksha (self-knowledge.) When a knowledgeable architect designs a square column and his stonemason cuts it this way, we see the tangible reflection of the four elements.
How did these theories in stone carving come to be? The principles go back to before the 4th century, called the Gupta dynasty; by the 7th century, Hindu scholars were writing texts about how to design and build.
The square has a meaning to those who understand the containment of fire. The fire pit is a square, sacred to the fire altar of Agni. So you see the resonance of “square,” and rock, and of course water, the opposite element of fire.
Furthermore, the square has great significance because it can represent the four cardinal elements and four directions we face as human beings. I learned that the square, because it is abstract, is divine perfection, but the circle is accessible and earthly, as we see it in nature in the sun, the moon, and the arch of the rainbow.
Why I love these lamps is that they enlighten! (Literally ….)They speak about the divine symmetry of the circle and the square, but they also echo the belief in Hindu thought that all things are one, connected.
So, the square form, the lotus design, the water, and the rock, are here personified. This is the key to the phase to “circle the square.”
To make a piece of rock LIVE as a natural form is exceedingly difficult, and there is no way of telling how old J.E.’s lamp bases are, but I can say that the stone had also a feminine touch, as I understand that women were employed to polish the square stone, and sometimes make them glow like mirrors.
Rock cut architectural features and all rock cut architecture like this is amazing. If these were ever part of such an historic structure, I will cry that they are not still a part.
Rock cut architecture is based on the premise that caves are sacred. As early as the 8th century, architects in India were excavating volcanic basaltic cliff rock into caves, doing what Michelangelo did eight centuries later and taking away what was not necessary.
These incredible craftsmen created massive temples (such as the largest, Ellora) and cut away the cave until it resembled a masonry or wooden place of worship.
I can only speculate on these monumental lamps, J.E. but the story of their heritage is fascinating. Let’s put a value of $800 each for starters.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.