Fire was worshipped in ancient India as the God Agni, and today fire is a primary symbol of divine energy. In lighting the flame in front of the image the devotee acknowledges the sacred supremacy of the God or Goddess. Various vegetable oils may be used in deepas, but the most auspicious fuel is the ghee of the cow, or clarified butter. Most lamps are brass, and many are sculpted with sacred symbols relevant to the deity being worshipped. In Buddhism, butter lamps are used at the altar.
Camphor, known locally as karpura, is processed from the pitch of the tree. When lighted, it has the unique property of creating a bright, cool flame that leaves no residue or ash. It is usually placed in a flat tray known as an arati. After being waved in front of the image, the arati is customarily brought close to the devotees so that they may put their hands into the fire and then touch their eyelids or the tops of their heads with their fingertips, an action with great symbolic value. The fragrant flame represents the brilliant presence of the deity. Contact with the fire is believed to purify and elevate the devotee’s soul, allowing it to merge with the magnificence of the Divine; at the same time, the energy of unknowable deity is transformed and channeled into palpable connection with the devotee. The arati puja and the darshan (the moment of visually recognizing and being recognized by God) are the most important acts in Hindu worship.