The Elephant Lamp

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You may have definitely heard of Aladdin’s Wonder Lamp. You may have seen various ancient oil lamps in each country you have visited.

In srilanka we have a wonder & mysterious lamp too. It is called as Elephant Oil Lamp.

Why I said it is a wonder because this lamp was built not only to light the surrounding but also to give the continues protection from germs and bacteria inside a labour room 1000 years ago.

Why I said it is a mysterious because the mechanism of this lamp can be explained from modern fluid static science.

This is a Ceiling Mounted Coconut Oil Lamp. This lamp was built in bronze. According to the archaeologists this lamp has a relation to 12th or 11th century. This was found in 1951 in the archaeology excavation happened in ‘Kotawehera Stupa’.

We all know for the oil lamp, burned oil must be refilled again and again. The speciality of this elephant oil lamp was the fluid level is automatically controlled and keep the flame of the lamp without sinking in the oil and without over burning the flame. This mechanism helps to light the lamp more than 12 hours continuously.

This lamp demonstrations the knowledge we had in Engineering Science, Architecture, and the ability of doing an artistic creation being working as an engineer or as a scientist.

Today I’m going to explain the history of this lamp, Architectural design of this lamp, the technology behind this lamp & the usage of this lamp in 12th century.

History of The Elephant Lamp

According to the Mahavansa 62nd chapter, the king Manabarana was the father of prince parakum and Manabarana was ruled in “dakkina deshaya”, the king’s queen has given the birth for a Norble prince in “punka gaama” and later this prince become a great king and he made a stupa as a memorial of his birthplace. That is Kota wehera or sutigara stupa. 1947 – 1951 Dr. Charls Godakumbura has led an excavation project on this stupa and they found various treasures which we can determine that this the birthplace or the labour room where prince parakum was born. The most attractive and important treasure found was this elephant oil lamp. There were two oil lamps found inside kotawehera.


Architectural Design of The Elephant Lamp

This Lamp is a ceiling mounted type oil lamp, which it is hanged by a chain. The lamp was made by casting bronze technology. The hook of the chain was made as a head of a snake. Chain was made with the appearance of Dancers and Drummers. There is dragon arch on the top of the elephant with beautiful carvings and it is hold by two lions on the bottom. There are two men on the top of the elephant, according to archaeologists they must be the elephant caretaker and his assistant. In the bottom there is a plate where the flame is lite and the oil sump.

Elephant’s hight is 12.6 cm, width 6.5, Oil plate is 8.5 cm tall and diameter is 23 cm, Total Hight of the Lamp is 28.5 cm.

Polonnaruwa - Elephant Lamp

How This Elephant Lamp Works

This is a cross section of the lamp. You can see the oil in the bottom plate and the flame,

Inside the elephant’s stomach there is an oil reservoir. You can remove the elephant from the dragon arch and pour the oil to inside by putting elephant upside down through this cannel and put again on the arch. The oil is not flow through cannel because the upper edge is higher than the oil level.

Oil in the Tank B will flow through point C and oil level will come to point A in the bottom plate. Once the oil level reach to point A, automatically the oil flow stops from point C.

When the oil is burned, gradually oil level goes down and as soon as it goes down the reservoir’s oil start leaking from point C and refill the bottom plate quickly.

Once the oil level reach to point A again, automatically the oil flow stops from point C.

Its helps to avoid over burning the flame or avoid flame sink on the oil.

But how it happens. There is no any electronic sensers in any point. Then how it happens…!!!

This whole mechanism can be explained through boyl’s law which was introduced to the world in 16th century. this is all about the theory of pressure and volume.

Polonnaruwa - Elephant Lamp
Kota wehera
Polonnaruwa - Elephant Lamp
Polonnaruwa - Elephant Lamp

When oil levels go down there will be an open connection with outer atmosphere and the inside tank through this path. Air pressure will be equal in outer atmosphere and inside the tank. There will be a pressure on the oil level because of the hight of the oil level. Together the air pressure and the oil pressure, point C’s pressure will go up. Since the atmosphere pressure is lower than point C oil start flowing from point C.

When oil level come back to point A, the connection with outer atmosphere will close and inside air pressure will become isolated. Since the area of air will increase due to decrease of the area of oil. Due to that air pressure will decreased. That is the boyl’s law. when the volume is increased pressure will be decreased.

As result of that total pressure of the point C will gradually decrease and at some time point C’s pressure will equal to atmosphere pressure and as a result of that oil leak will stop.

Now you can see how advance this mechanism is.

Scientific Approach of the Lamp’s Operations

Fluid will always flow from the high pressure to low pressure. the Center of Gravity of the elephant structure is pointed at elephant’s penis. after oil pour to the tank oil drops will come out from the penis since the inside the penis oil pressure is higher than the outer atmosphere pressure. Once the oil level of the bottom plate come to the elephants toe area the air connection will cut off with the outer atmosphere. Then the inside tank pressure will be getting low and it will be equal with the outer atmosphere at some point. At that point oil leak from penis will stop. Because fluid doesn’t flow when the pressure is equal.

When the oil burns because of the flame again there will be a connection with outer atmosphere pressure through the oil cannel and pressure of the inside tank will go up. As a result of that oil drops will flow from the penis of the elephant to the oil plate.

This whole operation is happened as per the Boyl’s law, Archimedes’ law, Pascal’s law and hydrostatic science and these theories are in modern fluid mechanics.

The Usage of The Elephant Lamp

The sanitization as well as the proper lighting inside a labour room is a critical point.

To reduce the bacteria involvement, minimum connection with the outer atmosphere is required.

Therefor inside a labour room must be a dark place & the continues lighting is a must.

Our ancient scientists have known that the coconut oil is great germ killer and a good form of sanitizing.

That’s why they have automated the lighting and sanitizing by designed this lamp and they knew it was important to have a continues process without any disturbance

Polonnaruwa - Elephant Lamp


The boyl’s law, Archimedes law, Pascal’s law was introduced to the world in 16th century by the western scientists. But even 500 years before our own engineers and scientist has used the same laws to build commercial purpose instruments. It is concluded that we have had our own engineering science but unfortunately it has not been flowed to our generation. in some part of the history all these knowledges were hidden by some generation and it has not come to us.

Kotawehera is the labour room of the prince parakum. Then this automated two oil lamps describes the useful of it specially inside a labour room. If it is a labour room, definitely there should be minimum connections with outer atmosphere. the sanitizing, as well as the light are major factors to be considered. Coconut oil is a great germ killer. We can conclude that two oil lamps were used to light the area as well as to sanitise the place. For delivering a baby, light is so crucial So the ancient scientists have automated the lighting and sanitizing make sure that it will be operated without any disturbance. It shows their knowledge of Microbiology and Process Engineering.

Since it is found inside the kotawehera, we cannot tell that this technology is related to Polonnaru era, it has been using many more years earlier. If Elephant Lamp is a protype product we cannot expect that it would be used for a birth of a prince.

We must say a word of the artistic ability of our ancient engineers. The person who designed that lamp was definitely an engineer. But his artistic ability was magnificent. He could have designed that lamp without and carvings. He could have designed it just to get the lighting from the lamp. But their creativity and imaginations are far beyond from us. it shows the ability of doing an artistic creation being working as an engineer or as a scientist.

As an Asian country we have had our own knowledge of engineering science as well as an advance knowledge of Microbiology in the ancient era.

They have known about germs, bacteria, and viral attacks.

Western world was introduced fluid Mechanics in 16th century by Pascal, Archimedes and Boyls.

But our ancient engineers have designed consumable products like this elephant oil lamp in 12th century by using the same theories.

But unfortunately, that knowledge did not flow to our generations.

We must find out and must do investigations to regain that knowledge which we have lost and share it with the rest of the world to make the world is a better place.

Srilanka is all about full of wonders and mysteries.