© Howard Martenstyn

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Kovilan Point Lighthouse, Karainagar

Lighthouses around Sri Lanka

The importance of lighthouses as an aid to maritime navigation runs deep down in the annals of history dating back to ancient Roman and Greek times. Lighthouses are towers designed to emit light from a signal fire or a system of lamps and lenses and are employed as an aid to vessels to mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals and reefs, and safe entries to ports and harbours. From a distance, a single burning light was not distinguishable from another and the precise location of the fire relied upon a mariner knowing roughly where he was along a particular coastline.

 

Once widely used, the numbers of operational lighthouses and other physical beacons has declined and made redundant by modern electronic navigational aids and radio beacons. However, lighthouses have now become popular tourist destinations and the public can access some of these sites and even the lighthouse.

 

Lighthouses project an extremely bright light out to sea though a powerful lens that increases the intensity of the light from their lamps. Super-bright xenon lamps power several lighthouses. The lens used is known as the Fresnel lens surrounded by a ring of triangular prisms, which refracts and focuses the light. The whole arrangement may rotate at a specific rate.

 

Lighthouses in Sri Lanka come under one or other of the following four light types that is emitted from top of a tower:—

  1. Fire

  2. Fixed lights (F)

  3. Flashing lights (Fl)

  4. Occulting lights (Occ)

An occulting light has longer periods of light than of darkness, while a flashing light has longer periods of darkness than of light. In areas with narrow bays or port entrances, lighthouses use red and green lights to distinguish the side of the entrance.

 

Upon entering a Sri Lankan port, a vessel keeps the red navigation aid (light, buoy or daylight marker) on the left side or port and green navigation aid to starboard (IALA System A of Buoyage). In daylight hours, lighthouses are recognized by their shape and colour.

Lighthouse Locations
Sri Lanka Lighthouses map
Early Stages to Present

In ancient times, the idea of an elevated fire to mark a port or hazard was devised as can be seen at Urumalai near Talaimannar. This method of wood and coal-fueled braziers, sometimes known as chauffers was not particularly effective, being erratic in brilliance and highly dependent on constant human attention.

A Swiss inventor Ami Argand discovered that by burning an oil wick in a glass tube increased illumination could be achieved by Venturi effect, the extra air drawn up the tube produced a flame of significantly increased illumination. Three fire lighthouses in the Jaffna Islands designed around this concept are still standing. Elsewhere, there are obelisk towers (beacons) that were thought to have once been operational at Jaffna Lagoon, Arippu and Kudremalai. Not surprisingly ship losses continued until lamp-powered lighthouses were built in the mid 19th century.

 

At an early stage in the establishment of lamp-powered lighthouses in the Indian sub-continent, they were built in the main ports, first at Trincomalee (in 1845) in the east and then Galle (in 1848) in the southwest followed by Colombo (in 1860) on the west coast. Originally they were part of fortifications, but in Colombo the lighthouse was decommissioned and the light moved to the clock tower in Fort.

James Douglass was very actively engaged in the building of lighthouses off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. There had always been a considerable number of passing ships, even before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, for all ships had to sail around the tip of the Indian continent.

Only those in passage to Australia passed a long way to the south, so the importance of marking the two reefs known as the Great and Little Basses had been well recognised. Douglass was given the task of building lighthouses on both rocks and his project involved the construction of almost identical structures. Both lighthouses are still active today. He began at the Great Basses Reef in 1869. The lighthouse was completed in 1873, only for work on the lighthouse at Little Basses Rock, to begin almost at once.

 

Initially, lighthouses were operated and maintained by the then Imperial Lighthouse Service under British administration. After independence, operation of lighthouses were gradually transferred over to the Sri Lanka Navy and completed by 1976. Now, most of the lighthouses are operated and maintained by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), while some still remain under the control of the Army and Navy, and not accessible to the public.

 

At present, only about half of the thirty standing lighthouses are currently reported as operating. Though some standing lighthouses are unmanned and inactive, they are a reassuring sign for passing mariners. We can only hope that the authorities see it fit to renovate and bring the inactive lighthouses back into operation to support night time navigation and tourism. There is a proposal to upgrade the Port of Trincomalee for night time navigation and plan to establish a yacht marina. Renovation of the Round Island lighthouse in the outer harbour started in 2016.

First Colombo Light

Built in 1860 (station established 1829). The first Colombo light apparently mounted on a church tower was moved in 1867 to the clock tower in Fort, Colombo. It was demolished to make way for expansion of the nearby Fort. An interesting neoclassical structure, the 40.2m light tower rising from a circular stone building and surrounded by an elaborate colonnade. Range of 14 nautical miles was due largely to its height.

 

Barberyn Island, Beruwala

Established in 1890. Active; white flash every 20 secs; focal plane 46m; 34m round granite tower with lantern and gallery, painted white. Located on an island near Beruwala, about 55 km south of Colombo. Accessible by boat. Site open, tower open daily by arrangement with the lighthouse keeper.

 

Point De Galle

Established in 1848. It was destroyed by fire in 1936; rebuilt in 1939. Active; two white flashes every 15 secs; focal plane 30.5m; range 9 nautical miles. 26.5m round cast iron tower with lantern and gallery, painted white; the base of the lantern is painted red. 4th order Chance Brothers Fresnel lens in use. Located on the south Bastion of the ancient Galle Fort that is part of a UNESCO world heritage site and renowned tourist attraction, makes it the country's most photographed lighthouse. Site open, tower closed.

 

Dondra Head

Established in 1890. Aka Devinuwara lighthouse. Active; white flash every 5 secs, focal plane 47m. 49m octagonal brick tower with lantern (cupola) and gallery, painted white. Designed by James Douglass and constructed by William Douglass. It is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka and stands on the southernmost tip of a rocky promontory, near Dondra town, 6km southeast of Matara. Site open, tower access by arrangement with the Colombo Port Harbour Master.

 

Round Island, Koddiyar Bay

Established in 1863. Inactive; three flashes every 15 secs, white or red sector depending on direction; focal plane 31m; range 10 nautical miles. Round cylindrical masonry tower 21m high with lantern and gallery. Entire lighthouse painted white.  Located atop a small island in Trincomalee Bay, in the outer harbour. The Round Island lighthouse is important for it shows how lights were starting to be adopted, not just for marking hazards, but as leading lights at the entrance to ports. Accessible only by boat. Site and tower closed to public. Renovation started in 2016. Tower repainted.

Lighthouses around Sri Lanka

Great Basses

Established in 1873. Active; white flash every 15 secs; focal plane 34m. 37m round granite tower with lantern and double gallery, painted white. The lighthouse was designed by Alexander Gordon and James M. Douglass and built by his brother William Douglass. The lighthouse construction began on 5th March 1870 and became operational 3 years later. It is placed on a hard sand stone rock rising 6 feet above mean sea level. Located about 11½ km offshore and 20 km east of Kirinda Oya. 

 

Little Basses

Established in 1878. Active; two very quick white flashes every 10 secs; focal plane 34m; range 27 nautical miles. 37m round granite tower with lantern and double gallery, painted white with a black horizontal band. The lighthouse was designed by Alexander Gordon and James M. Douglass and built by his brother William Douglass. Located on a reef called Kuda Ravana Kotuwa (Fort of Little Ravana) the Little Basses lighthouse was renamed by the British. Little Basses (derived from the Portuguese word “baxos”, meaning shoals) is a line of reefs off the southeast coast off Yala Block II. The lighthouse that sits on the reef is 11.5 km from Kumbukkan Oya and can be seen from the beach on a clear day. Unmanned.

Lighthouses: Locations & Charateristics

Lighthouse characteristics nomenclature:

<light type><colour of light if not only white>.<period in secs (s)>.<focal plane (distance from mean sea level to the optical center of the lens) in meters (m)>.< range (visible distance) in nautical miles (M)>.

 

* Lighthouse reported as operating as specified.

 

! Lighthouse reported as operating with all-round flashing white beam.

Notes:

  • ARLHS numbers are from the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society (ARLHS) World List of Lights.

  • Admiralty numbers are from volume F of the Admiralty List of Lights & Fog Signals.

  • U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) List numbers are from Publication 112.

Fort Clock Tower, Colombo

© Howard Martenstyn