Keepers of the Light

Ramesh Menon 1

Ramesh Menon describes the strange history and changing present of South Asia’s lighthouses

Fort Aguada, Goa The present Aguada lighthouse is relatively new, as it was constructed in 1976. The earlier four-storeyed lighthouse was built in 1864 atop the sprawling Aguada Fort. It is now being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India.                The Aguada Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1612 to guard their interests in Goa against the Dutch and the Marathas. It was never conquered during the 451 years of Portuguese rule. Walking around the laterite stone fort and the lighthouse, you cannot help but feel the heartbeat of history. Image courtesy: Getty Images

Fort Aguada, Goa
The present Aguada lighthouse is relatively new, as it was constructed in 1976. The earlier four-storeyed lighthouse was built in 1864 atop the sprawling Aguada Fort. It is now being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Aguada Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1612 to guard their interests in Goa against the Dutch and the Marathas. It was never conquered during the 451 years of Portuguese rule. Walking around the laterite stone fort and the lighthouse, you cannot help but feel the heartbeat of history.
Image courtesy: Getty Images

Ever since mankind conjured up the idea of commerce across the seas, lighthouses have been its silent sentinels, guiding ships through treacherous waters. These “lamp posts of the ocean” have helped save thousands of lives over the centuries in our waters, safely guiding mariners and fishermen along the Indian coastline, from Gujarat to West Bengal as well as around Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Each of the 186 lighthouses dotting the country’s shores has a story to tell. Many of them are extraordinary vestiges of maritime heritage and marvels of engineering.

However, light keepers have to be philosophical. It can get rather lonely as many lighthouses are located far away from civilisation. In fact, it’s far from romantic.

Each lighthouse has a different character in terms of how many flashes it sends out as it rotates. This helps mariners to recognise its location. One of the oldest operational lighthouses in India is the False Point Lighthouse, built by the British in 1838 near Paradip in Odisha. There was a time when the light was a flickering flame that got its life from kerosene or coconut oil. Today, sophisticated prisms reflect solar-powered lights. Many remote lighthouses are even automated.

With GPS coming in, the general feeling is that lighthouses are outdated. That was the case many years ago; but post the 26/11 sea-borne terror attacks in Mumbai, some lighthouses have been equipped with state-of-the-art radars to keep an eye on any suspicious movement out at sea. Equipped with high-tech gadgetry, officials in master control rooms in Mumbai, Kandla and Visakhapatnam monitor every ship along the 7,517km-long Indian coastline. At strategic points, 74 lighthouses function as base stations for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to monitor maritime activities within a 50km radius of the shore. This helps to strengthen anti-piracy measures and ensure the safety of ships, but it also comes in handy in search and rescue operations. Set up by the Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships, it is the largest such network in the world.

It was the British who strengthened and built many lighthouses in India. Port cities built their own lighthouses and maintained them with revenue earned from ships passing by. Since many of the lighthouses are heritage structures, developing them as tourist spots would change the general notion that they are antiquated and even redundant. Many offer breathtaking views of the sea and the countryside. Where better can one experience the magic of the rising and setting sun than near a lighthouse?

Ruvapari, Gujarat Built in 1891, the Ruvapari lighthouse was destroyed by a cyclone in 1920. The Bhavnagar State Port rebuilt it in 1922 using superior teakwood especially brought from the Andamans as it could withstand the unpredictable weather. Even today, it is in excellent shape. It is designed like a cabin on stilts with a pole hoisting the light, and is surrounded by the sea. One can walk to it only during low tide but the path is treacherous as your feet sink into the soft mud.  It is one of the most difficult lighthouses to inhabit in India. But its keeper of 13 years, Mohammed Usman Jatt, has no complaints since his job ensures the safety of sailors. He lives in a small room in the lighthouse and survives an entire year on rainwater he has harvested. His son and wife visited him once but when the boy fell from the top, they decided never to return. They live in Kutch. He rarely gets to see them.  Photograph: Pratik Kumar

Ruvapari, Gujarat
Built in 1891, the Ruvapari lighthouse was destroyed by a cyclone in 1920. The Bhavnagar State Port rebuilt it in 1922 using superior teakwood especially brought from the Andamans as it could withstand the unpredictable weather. Even today, it is in excellent shape. It is designed like a cabin on stilts with a pole hoisting the light, and is surrounded by the sea. One can walk to it only during low tide but the path is treacherous as your feet sink into the soft mud.
It is one of the most difficult lighthouses to inhabit in India. But its keeper of 13 years, Mohammed Usman Jatt, has no complaints since his job ensures the safety of sailors. He lives in a small room in the lighthouse and survives an entire year on rainwater he has harvested. His son and wife visited him once but when the boy fell from the top, they decided never to return. They live in Kutch. He rarely gets to see them.
Photograph: Pratik Kumar

 

Sir Hugh Rose Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands This 23-metre-tall cast iron lighthouse was the first one built in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Its thick cast iron plates were shipped from France and assembled here in 1969. Constructed on difficult terrain, it is nothing short of an engineering marvel. It takes about four hours by ship to reach this remote island from Port Blair. It towers over the area in solitary domination. Since it is fully automated, it requires no keeper to live here and battle loneliness. This small island is thick with vegetation and the rough-hewn steps that lead to the lighthouse are blocked with wild creepers.  Photograph: Ramesh menon

Sir Hugh Rose Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands
This 23-metre-tall cast iron lighthouse was the first one built in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Its thick cast iron plates were shipped from France and assembled here in 1969. Constructed on difficult terrain, it is nothing short of an engineering marvel. It takes about four hours by ship to reach this remote island from Port Blair. It towers over the area in solitary domination. Since it is fully automated, it requires no keeper to live here and battle loneliness. This small island is thick with vegetation and the rough-hewn steps that lead to the lighthouse are blocked with wild creepers.
Photograph: Ramesh Menon

 

Kanhoji Angre Island, near Mumbai You get a sense of history just looking at this lighthouse made of cut stones. It was built in 1867 on a Portuguese fort on this kidney-shaped island, and has witnessed many battles. Earlier called Khanderi, it was renamed Kanhoji Angre after the famed admiral when it was taken over by the Marathas in the 18th century. The only visitors now are Koli fishermen who come to pray at the Shiva temple. When they invest in a new boat, the first trip is made to this temple to pray for prosperity and safety at sea.   Image courtesy: Getty Images

Kanhoji Angre Island, near Mumbai
You get a sense of history just looking at this lighthouse made of cut stones. It was built in 1867 on a Portuguese fort on this kidney-shaped island, and has witnessed many battles. Earlier called Khanderi, it was renamed Kanhoji Angre after the famed admiral when it was taken over by the Marathas in the 18th century. The only visitors now are Koli fishermen who come to pray at the Shiva temple. When they invest in a new boat, the first trip is made to this temple to pray for prosperity and safety at sea.
Image courtesy: Getty Images

 

Madras High Court, Tamil Nadu By the late 18th century, most of southern India had been conquered by the British and Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency. The first lighthouse was set up in 1796, and was one of the oldest in India. An oil lantern with large wicks was fixed atop the officers’ mess at Fort St George. The wick lamp was then shifted to a 120-feet-tall Doric column in 1841 in the Madras High Court compound. In 1894, it was moved to the dome of the tallest minaret in the new High Court building. It used kerosene vapour lamps to guide ships. The fourth (and present-day) lighthouse was set up in 1977 facing Marina beach. It is the only lighthouse in the country with an elevator and has been reopened for visitors. Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

Madras High Court, Tamil Nadu
By the late 18th century, most of southern India had been conquered by the British and Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency. The first lighthouse was set up in 1796, and was one of the oldest in India. An oil lantern with large wicks was fixed atop the officers’ mess at Fort St George. The wick lamp was then shifted to a 120-feet-tall Doric column in 1841 in the Madras High Court compound. In 1894, it was moved to the dome of the tallest minaret in the new High Court building. It used kerosene vapour lamps to guide ships. The fourth (and present-day) lighthouse was set up in 1977 facing Marina beach. It is the only lighthouse in the country with an elevator and has been reopened for visitors.
Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

 

Mahabalipuram, Tamil nadu It is a pleasant two-hour drive from Chennai to Mahabalipuram. This lighthouse dates back to 1900, and blends in nicely with the surrounding monuments. Most visitors make it a point to go to the top of the lighthouse for a bird’s-eye view of the area.  Since there are exceptional examples of Pallava art around the lighthouse, it is believed that there was once a thriving school for young sculptors here. Many temples have been carved out of a single rock. The area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.  Image courtesy: Getty Images

Mahabalipuram, Tamil nadu
It is a pleasant two-hour drive from Chennai to Mahabalipuram. This lighthouse dates back to 1900, and blends in nicely with the surrounding monuments. Most visitors make it a point to go to the top of the lighthouse for a bird’s-eye view of the area.
Since there are exceptional examples of Pallava art around the lighthouse, it is believed that there was once a thriving school for young sculptors here. Many temples have been carved out of a single rock. The area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Image courtesy: Getty Images

 

Manora Point Light, Karachi, Pakistan This lighthouse, located in the port of Manora in Karachi, is the tallest in Pakistan. It was first built as a light station in 1851, and then extensively renovated in 1889. It is still functional, and its light is visible up to 20 nautical miles away. It was recognised as the second oldest lighthouse in the erstwhile British Raj. Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

Manora Point Light, Karachi, Pakistan
This lighthouse, located in the port of Manora in Karachi, is the tallest in Pakistan. It was first built as a light station in 1851, and then extensively renovated in 1889. It is still functional, and its light is visible up to 20 nautical miles away. It was recognised as the second oldest lighthouse in the erstwhile British Raj.
Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

 

Prongs Reef, Mumbai This iconic red, white and black stone tower marks the entrance to the harbour of India’s commercial capital, and stands like a tapering sentinel in the middle of the Arabian Sea. Since there were more than 50 ships wrecked around Bombay harbour during the 18th century, a need was articulated for a lighthouse off Colaba. Modelled on Scotland’s Skerryvore lighthouse, it was built in 1875 at a cost of Rs 6 lacs by Thomas Ormiston, the first chief engineer of the Bombay Port Trust. It even had a cannon to repel pirates. According to Devendra Chaudhary, the navigational assistant, “Life is tough. Sometimes, one day seems like a month.” Ironically, the modern bustle of Mumbai is minutes away. But this is a different world; the staff crave company and talk to the sea. Until recently, 55 litres of kerosene was pumped up manually everyday to keep the flame alive.  Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

Prongs Reef, Mumbai
This iconic red, white and black stone tower marks the entrance to the harbour of India’s commercial capital, and stands like a tapering sentinel in the middle of the Arabian Sea. Since there were more than 50 ships wrecked around Bombay harbour during the 18th century, a need was articulated for a lighthouse off Colaba. Modelled on Scotland’s Skerryvore lighthouse, it was built in 1875 at a cost of Rs 6 lacs by Thomas Ormiston, the first chief engineer of the Bombay Port Trust. It even had a cannon to repel pirates. According to Devendra Chaudhary, the navigational assistant, “Life is tough. Sometimes, one day seems like a month.” Ironically, the modern bustle of Mumbai is minutes away. But this is a different world; the staff crave company and talk to the sea. Until recently, 55 litres of kerosene was pumped up manually everyday to keep the flame alive.
Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

 

Lighthouse Clock Tower, Colombo, Sri Lanka This 29-metre-high lighthouse in downtown Colombo has been inactive since 1952. Built in 1860, its original purpose was to serve as a clock tower; the navigational light was shifted here in 1865. The original clock, which was later replaced in 1913, was made by the same manufacturers who built the Big Ben in London.   Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

Lighthouse Clock Tower, Colombo, Sri Lanka
This 29-metre-high lighthouse in downtown Colombo has been inactive since 1952. Built in 1860, its original purpose was to serve as a clock tower; the navigational light was shifted here in 1865. The original clock, which was later replaced in 1913, was made by the same manufacturers who built the Big Ben in London.
Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

 

Fakir Point Light, Myanmar Myanmar’s first lighthouse, the Fakir Point Light, was built in 1844 by Lieutenant Siddons of the Royal Engineers. Also called the Great Savage Island Light, its ruins can still be seen on a small island near Sittwe, 15 miles away from Oyster Island. Though built at a great cost, it served to guide ships navigating the coast of Burma as well as vessels plying between Calcutta and Singapore. The present tower was constructed in 1891. Though in disuse since the 1980s, it still serves as a useful landmark. Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

Fakir Point Light, Myanmar
Myanmar’s first lighthouse, the Fakir Point Light, was built in 1844 by Lieutenant Siddons of the Royal Engineers. Also called the Great Savage Island Light, its ruins can still be seen on a small island near Sittwe, 15 miles away from Oyster Island. Though built at a great cost, it served to guide ships navigating the coast of Burma as well as vessels plying between Calcutta and Singapore. The present tower was constructed in 1891. Though in disuse since the 1980s, it still serves as a useful landmark.
Image courtesy: Klaus Huelse

Ramesh Menon wanted to be a writer since he was in class seven, and cannot imagine a life otherwise. He has worked for The Times of India, India Today, Business India Television, TV Today and Rediff.com. He has travelled the entire coast of India to produce a coffee table book, Night Sparkle. He is presently the managing editor at India Legal.

One Comment

  1. Arent September 18, 2016 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    Unfortunately I cannot find any information about this book on the internet. What is the ISBN code of this book?

    //Arent

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