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A lighting designer's introspection on the abstraction of light and darkness

Dhruvajyoti Ghose, Director of Lighting Design Partnership, provides insight on the perception of darkness, its cultural transformations in a historical context in Garbh to Griha.

by Dhruvajyoti GhosePublished on : Oct 19, 2019

ॐ असतो मा सदगमय
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय
मृत्योर्मामृतम् गमय
ॐ शांति: शांति: शांति:

(Om Asatho Maa Sad Gamaya
Thamaso Maa Jyothir Gamaya
Mrithyur Maa Amritham Gamaya
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti)
Oh Almighty!
Lead us from the unreal (falsity)
to the real (truth)
From darkness to light
From death to immortality
Oh Almighty
May there be Peace. Peace. Peace.

(Translation source:

This prayer from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has an easy formal translation but within it are summarised three enduring precepts: movement from the unreal towards the real, from unawareness to realisation, and from the transient to the eternal. It is no accident that existential needs such as food and shelter are omitted and instead the triplet focuses on abstractions. The duality and paradoxical unity between each of the three pairs have often engaged my attention, but it has been the introspective abstraction of the central theme – of light and darkness – that I find intriguing. To aphorise this as a movement, it is necessary to acknowledge the distinction between the two states, as change can only occur when there exists a difference in potential. The transformation from darkness to light has a natural association with warmth, activity and élan vital, and yet, it is the third line that holds a subtle hint that one may need to look in an alternate direction.

The prayer turns attention away from the external reality (कित), which is known to be transient and perishable to the internal self (पष) as being eternal and immutable. Perhaps there is another conjoined movement, towards darkness, away from the world perceived through the sense of sight, to one within us, which cannot be seen but only experienced. Light and its sensation always have a comparative counterpart – bright can always be brighter – and the process can be continued infinitely. Moving towards darkness leads to an absolute, there exists a stage of no-light, a pure darkness, the zero-point of nothingness. This primordial umbral darkness exists only as an imaginary state, as even the mere presence of an observer would alter the zero energy condition. Similar to Schrodinger’s problem, we know it exists but it cannot be witnessed, as the act of witnessing destroys it. Maybe this radiant darkness is the garbh, the intellectual version of the black hole, the birthplace of stars.

Prayer lamps at Boudhanath, a stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal| From Attention to Awareness | Dhruvajyoti Ghose| STIRworld
Prayer lamps at Boudhanath, a stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal Image Credit: Suraj Belbase, and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What led philosophers to explore darkness with rigorous intensity and embed it into our culture in myriad forms? If humanity developed from nomadic foragers to settled agriculturists, one can conjecture about the wants that would have been predominant in the shared consciousness of the times. The need for food and water, safety from predators, and shelter from the environment would have been significant concerns, and evolution towards a settled community provided defence and resilience against these. The desire to achieve predictability and control through an understanding of the underlying order was perhaps, and still is, confounded by the randomness and aspects of the universe apparently beyond mankind’s influence. In antiquity, various schools of philosophy evolved assumptions to explain perceived realities and concentrated their attempts to rationalise the role of mankind in the universe. Most of these threads have similar beginnings and end at similar conclusions. However, the path taken may be remarkably different.

By the time the settlements became established civilisations, the concept of an external supreme power had begun to coalesce into patterns informed by philosophical assumptions and this was acknowledged through the creation of temples. It is observed that some civilisations positioned the sanctum sanctorum in the innermost section of their temples. The Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Harappan and Vedic cultures, which exhibit this, all have links to fire worship. It has been suggested that the first ‘god’ to be recognised as an inexplicable force may have been elemental fire. With the power to burn and also protect, initially it would have provided safety from predators. The first human achievement would have been the capability to sustain a flame, followed by the knowledge of how to ignite one. It can be conjectured that the initial discovery and exploration of fire would have taken place at night, observing and nurturing sparks shed from a greater blaze. This play of fire in darkness continues to find its representation in rituals even today.

In a Hindu temple, for example, prayer and worship are directed towards the parmatman – the primordial self (who/which can be represented in myriad ways), of which each living being is a part. In a simplistic understanding – one is identifying the self with the divine. The gradual progress towards darkness, leads one to the garbh griha – the ‘house of the womb’ where all creation is manifest. This chamber traditionally would be the darkest part, with the symbolic representation of parmatman placed within. Gazing inwards, there is the experience of the infinite void, the window into time and space where creation is the continuum, and if creation is taking place, surely the creator is present too.

Plan of Kandariya Mahadeo temple, Khajuraho | From Attention to Awareness | Dhruvajyoti Ghose| STIRworld
Plan of Kandariya Mahadeo temple, Khajuraho Image Credit: Courtesy of Lighting Design Partnership

An essential component of the prayer is the aarti whose etymology could be from aratrika or the dispelling of darkness. During aarti, an open flame is held up by the priest between the idol and the worshiper who views the flame reflected in the eyes of the deity. This moment of connection with the primordial spark, the sense of security, the elemental association is designed to bring the individual into the ambit of what is experienced as divinity. The Oriental desire and attempt to reconcile with the infinite, the formless, is represented through this movement into darkness, emphasising solitariness of the journey, as one detaches from the material world and ascends to the eternal, for a glimpse of the numinous. 

Plan of Temple of Solomon, Sinai | From Attention to Awareness | Dhruvajyoti Ghose| STIRworld
Plan of temple of Solomon, Sinai Image Credit: Courtesy of Lighting Design Partnership

Cultures with the central theme of relinquishing what is valuable and sharing it with others, created temples that allowed participation of the laity as an audience in the sacrificial ritual. Consequently, the altar was placed within a gathering space, which allowed clear views and participation. In churches for example, the altar forms the centrepiece of the sanctuary and is located at the intersection of the nave and transept. In comparison to the nave, the altar is brighter and focuses the attention of the worshippers towards it. Ecclesiastical architecture has over centuries developed structural innovations to primarily assist in bringing this glow into the sanctuary. The gothic period saw the emergence of flying buttresses, creating high clerestories and rose windows, allowing the interiors to be bathed in light. The traditional churches faced east and the rose windows created spectacular chiaroscuro highlights during the Eucharist.

Divinity was embodied in the shards of light that streamed through the perforations and reflected off the altar into the congregation. The church turns the invisible medium of light into a visible spectacle. Renaissance artists represented the metaphor of mankind’s ascent towards light in frescoes and paintings with radiant auras. Shadows symbolically represented where the unpleasant and fallen lurked. Within Occidental philosophy where “God is light and in him is no darkness at all,” the visible rays of light create the connection to the Supreme and a visual link between the real world and celestial paradise.

Incorporation of natural light in Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church (Church of the Light), Japan | From Attention to Awareness | Dhruvajyoti Ghose| STIRworld
Incorporation of natural light in Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church (Church of the Light), Japan Image Credit: Bergmann and Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These antipodean philosophies are but ways of interpreting our human existence, an attempt to rationalise the observable. But there is a physical world too that we inhabit. We go through cycles of day and night, and the physiology of all living beings responds to this diurnal sequence. Our visual system has evolved to be sensitive to the full natural range of light, from a single photon to the brightest sunlight. We now know that the eye does not function merely as a camera obscura, receiving images. Instead it participates in a complex dialogue with the visual cortex in providing perception. Eyes also provide a neural pathway into the pineal gland, which secretes hormones that control many of our diurnal responses. Whilst the evolutionary benefits of our visual system are undoubted, it does have at least two different systems cobbled together with completely diverse characteristics. The cones provide colour vision, with a narrow field of view, high resolution, depth perception and function in relatively highly bright environments. When light levels fall and our cones become unreliable, our perception turns to the rod cells in the retina. These cells provide a wide field of view, respond in a monochrome and react to changes in contrast rather than intensity. Our perception changes from an attention driven mechanism into an awareness radar.

The next step towards darkness, unquestionable in its biological need is sleep – but why we sleep is still far from being well understood. Physical tiredness can be repaired by rest and we don’t sleep only to rest our eyes as even congenitally blind persons sleep. We must close our eyes during sleep (it would be startling to find people asleep with their eyes open) limiting visual stimulus and perhaps this is why darkness is a common requirement for sleep. We are well aware of the havoc wrought on our circadian system by time zone shifts and for shift workers. The body needs sleep for a particular duration and it must be at a time when the body is ready for it. One of the prevailing viewpoints is that the brain is refreshed by removal of metabolic waste from the brain cells during sleep. It is also during sleep that the brain categorises inputs from the past day and merges them with previous memories.

Dreams occur when we are asleep and the phenomenon is one unproven truth that has been studied extensively, from both neuro-scientific and psychoanalytic viewpoints. Though the content of the dreams are varied and often bizarre, predominantly they are composed of visual imagery. It is as if during sleep our subconscious generates multiple interpretations of our real world experiences, experimental narratives, which can transcend physical limitations of time and space. The analytical processes of cognition are overridden by the freedom of our subliminal narrations. It is our personal experiential laboratory where test cases are perhaps filed away to be retrieved later as spontaneous intuitions.

Darkness brings relaxation and as the fight-or-flight mechanisms within our brain are desensitised, we feel a heightening of our senses. We notice this as a dilation of the pupils in response to the lower ambient light levels. Our creative urges controlled by the right half of the brain become dominant. Poets, musicians, painters, and other creative souls are known to have found inspiration at night and moonlight was perhaps incorrectly identified as the key ingredient! Rumi penned his Sufi work, Gazing at the Beloved after his immersive meeting with Tabriz and says, “Because I cannot sleep I make music at night.” Barriers fall away when sustained eye contact between two people occurs, drawing them into a meditative union. When we gaze at the eyes of another, we are looking into a deep darkness, no different from the garbh griha. Could this be why the most intimate moments of romance are experienced in little light?

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. - William Blake

This ‘inner-consciousness generator’ comes to life when the most dominant stimulus of sight is dimmed. As our perception disengages from analysing the real world, we engage with the internal atman, moving toward darkness to find radiance within. William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Creative epiphanies are triggered when the candle has burnt low and in the embers of the fireplace, mystical visions arise. From darkness we are born and to eternal darkness we return, transiting through days filled with splendour and laughter.

A tree grows towards light, but the seed germinates in darkness.

(The article was first published in Issue #1 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)

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