Mastering the art of making diyas

By Rupa Seenaraine

The lighting of diyas is a centuries-old tradition that is synonymous with the celebration of Diwali – a popular Hindu festival.

Potter: Parishram

Regarded as the Festival of Lights or Deepavali, earthen lamps or “diyas” are filled with oil and lit using a cotton wick – creating a spectacle for both the young and old. It symbolises the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.
On the night of Deepavali, the corners of houses are adorned with these lamps – as the celebrations reach its pinnacle. There are tales of persons in the community making their own back in the olden days. Even today, some persons still uphold that tradition. However, many persons have adopted the new tradition of purchasing their little earthen lanterns.

The kiln is ignited to bake the clay lamps

Here in Guyana, handmade diyas are produced by skilled potters, individually crafting them as per the necessary dimensions and other requirements. Guyana Times ventured out to Tuschen on the West Coast of Demerara, to capture the work of 62-year-old Parishram – who has been in the trade for over two decades.
He recalled learning the art whilst living on the quiet island of Wakenaam in the Essequibo River. Parishram said it took some time to master the entire process, after which, he carried this talent to his new home in Tuschen.
At his residence, there are many tools and contraptions which are needed to bring his work to life. However, the process is also a complex one.

A diya in the making

Parishram first begins with sourcing clay. He takes a boat and travels to Hogg Island where the material is easily accessible. Men would assist him in gathering some 200 bags of the clay and it is transported to Parika. It is stored at his house until ready to use, whether to make diyas or other articles.

He also decorates some with paint and glitters

For three months in the year, there is a rush to make diyas for the impending Diwali season. To start, the clay is kneaded. He weighs and parcels them. It is placed on a special pottery wheel and the diyas are shaped.
He makes the standard diyas and larger ones. There are those with four corners and another that comprises two individual wicks. They are put to dry in the sun for a few days.
The potter explained that in unfortunate weather conditions, it takes longer to dry the clay lamps.
“Just for about three months, it does be really busy making diyas. Sometimes for the whole day, even in the night when I get a big order. The work depends on the sun. If we don’t get sun to dry it, we got to wait. It does take like two days to dry,” he explained.
He packs the diyas in a box when they are completely dry until there is a large amount. Then, it is baked in a kiln, which can hold approximately 3500 diyas, for about six hours. They remain in the kiln for about three days before they’re finally removed.
Parishram supplies wholesale outlets and other stakeholders with his products. He works with strict orders to ensure that clients are satisfied. While some diyas are sold as they are, he has also explored the concept of decorating his products with paint and glitters – which is also in demand. This came with the pressure of constant reinvention to remain relevant and stay above competitors.
Speaking about the demand for diyas now, he said it has dwindled somewhat due to the proliferation of artificial lights, which are manufactured to replicate the original. People tend to gravitate towards these new inventions, since they can be lit with just a switch and can withstand heavy winds. Moreover, a lot of people are getting involved in pottery.
“There is no big demand now as it was before. People bringing in things that you can light with current or batteries and people mostly going with that. But people still have function and they have to buy in small quantity. Diya not selling like before and then also, plenty people making them now. It slow up a bit now,” he explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also dampened the trade, since many persons are restricted from organising functions with large masses. This has caused a reduction in sales, when compared to last year. Nevertheless, the elderly man continues the trade and makes a variety of other items such as vases and religious items.