The Heritage Lamplighter

Jackie Pinto | February 18, 2024 | Heritage

Radeesh Shetty gives us a glimpse into the fascinating world of heritage lamps and their cultural significance.


A part of a Sanskrit verse that means moving seamlessly from darkness towards light.

Stepping into Purple Turtles is like stepping into a lamp-lit wonderland where spiritual couplets naturally come to mind. Yet amidst the multi level collection of colourful hand-painted cabinets, objets d’art from different parts of the country, gleaming copper and brass artefacts, gorgeous pichwais, carved wooden frames, gleaming mirrors, quirky bric-a-brac, chandeliers and filigree hangings, their stunning collection of ancient oil lamps effortlessly hold their own.

Purple Turtles was started by two friends Radeesh Shetty and Gaurav Rai, in Bangalore in 2009. They began by offering lighting solutions that showcased Indian design and craftsmanship as an alternative to generic, widely accessible products that were available at the time.

Shetty began his passionate relationship with lamps when he was in his mid -twenties, buying his very first oil lamp from Chennai. Like most collectors, he was quickly hooked. He bought a second, then a third and today, has hundreds of lamps with a fascinating history attached to several of them.

Outtakes from Purple Turtle’s Lamp collection

“Founding Purple Turtles with a close friend was a passion cum business project. We chose the name because turtles as a species are attracted to light and purple was historically a luxurious colour. And we wanted people to be intrigued enough by the name so that it would be remembered,” he smiles.

Starting with one project in Goa that they bagged through an architect friend, they gradually built up their network snagging big ticket clients like TCS, Wipro, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft and airport terminal projects, most recently the design centric T2 at Bangalore Airport. They also expanded their brick and mortar stores across cities and added more verticals like Berur and Oorja along the way.

Berur is a root-to-roof garden solution store (beru for roots and uru for city) that also reflects the brands penchant for elegance and design. Oorja is a partnership with Jenny Pinto’s sustainable design studio that was founded in 1998.Oorja is known for their diaphanous, ethereal lamps made from paper, waste and natural fibres.
While Purple Turtles is a treasure trove of exquisite things, their collection of heritage oil lamps is truly unique, as is their provenance, explains Shetty.

“In their oldest form, oil lamps were used to transport fire and light safely and were simple, practical, concave vessels like sea shells, coconuts or even carved stones that could basically hold oil or animal fat and a wick. In India, oil lamps date back to the Vedic period (approximately 1500-500 BCE) and since then have been an integral part of Indian life used extensively in homes and places of worship,” he begins. He goes on to describe how traditionally lamps used in temples are usually circular holding five wicks, are made of metal and either suspended on a chain or mounted on a pedestal. The practice of burning a lamp all day is called Akhanda Deepa and stems from the belief that light is knowledge and power and together they vanquish darkness, or ignorance. “Traditional Indian lamps carry different names- like Nilavilakku– a tall brass or bronze lamp on a stand where the wicks are placed at a certain height. Deepalakshmi-depicts the goddess in the form of an engraving, Paavai vilakku,is a graceful lamp in the form of a lady holding a vessel ranging from tiny to almost life-size. A very popular lamp is the Thooku vilakku, a brass or bronze lamp suspended from a chain, often with multiple wicks.”

Some of his favourites include two ancient acrobat lamps, Sri Lankan wedding lamps, hanging horse-headed kudre lamps, a strangely carved pineapple lamp, an exceptionally tall rooster lamp and dramatic step lamps that were originally commissioned for temples. A three-feet tall lamp engraved in Tamil with the names of family members came from Chettinad.“These lamps were specially commissioned by wealthy families as part of a daughter’s dowry.,”he says, explaining how a heavy kerosene horse-lamp in wood and brass typically used for festivals, temple processions and churches in Kochi came to him via a dealer in Jodhpur.

According to him, temples change their step lamps every couple of decades for different reasons. That’s when they become available for sale to private collectors. Contrary to popular belief, it’s the lighter lamps that are more valuable since the craftsmanship required to make them is very fine. And although oil lamps may be composed of stone or clay, many are cast using lost-wax methodology and composed of various metals including brass and bronze. Shetty feels that unless we make serious efforts to revive and preserve this ancient craft form, it may well be lost forever.

Words by Jackie Pinto.
Featured image The magic lamp painting by Suyin Wai.
Image courtesy Purple Turtles.

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