Lighthouses – Bringing sailors home safe | Sunday Observer

Lighthouses – Bringing sailors home safe

19 January, 2020
Old Colombo Lighthouse
Old Colombo Lighthouse


Lighthouses are towers or buildings with flashing lights or beams directed seawards to guide ships safely through dangerous, rocky areas.

The earliest lights to guide mariners were bonfires lit on high grounds or hills. Sometimes, these fires were built on platforms so that they could be clearly seen by sailors.

In the old days, especially in the West there were evil men called ship wreckers or wreckers who would douse or shift lights to make the ships crash on rock and then plunder everything in the ship. They did not care how many people died in the process.

Little Basses Reef Lighthouse

The first known lighthouse was the Pharos in Alexandria built by Ptolemy 1 and his son Ptolemy 11 between 300 and 250 B.C. This was said to be 450 feet high and was regarded as one of the wonders of the Ancient World. By the 1300’s this was destroyed by invaders and earthquakes.

The oldest existing lighthouse is the La Coruna lighthouse in Spain. This is supposed to have been built during ca 20. A Roman lighthouse discovered while digging in the cliffs of Dover in the UK is believed to have been constructed in 450 AD.

Lighthouses came to Sri Lanka with colonizers , especially the British who built many of the lighthouses in the land. They were managed by the Imperial Lighthouses Service. Now, let us look at some Sri Lankan lighthouses.

First Colombo Light

This was built only in 1860 though the station was established earlier. It is also known as The Old Colombo Lighthouse Clock Tower. The first Colombo Light is said to have been mounted on a church tower. It was moved to the Clock Tower in Fort, Colombo in 1867.

The Old Colombo Lighthouse Clock Tower is no longer operational as a lighthouse but functions as a clock tower and is sited at the junction of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha.

Kerosene oil was used to power the First Light which is said to beam as far as 17 miles out to sea. in clear weather.

A plaque displayed on the side of the tower notes that the light or beam flashed seawards every five seconds. The semi global roof is topped by a metallic arrow that is used to show the direction of the wind.

Dondra Lighthouse

Sri Lanka’s southern most point or tip is Dondra (Devundara)in the district of Matara, Southern Province and is home to the island’s tallest lighthouse. This lighthouse is 54 metres or 161 feet tall and is one of the tallest lighthouses in the South East Asian engine. It was commissioned in March 1890, the British era in Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then.

The Dondra Lighthouse was designed by a well known British civil engineer Sir James Nicholas Douglass. His brother William Douglass who was with the Imperial Light House Service (which managed all British Light Houses ) built it.

It is octagonal in shape and has a lantern (cupola) and a gallery. The light flashes every five seconds. It is painted white for better visibility.

The grey stones which were used to build this was supposed to have been brought from Scotland and Cornwall in UK.

The Galle Lighthouse

The Galle Lighthouse also called the Point de Galle Light is located within the historic Galle Fort. Built in 1848 it is thought to be the oldest lighthouse in Sri Lanka. Sadly, the original lighthouse was destroyed by a fire in 1936 and the lighthouse that is there today was built in 1940.

Two white flashes from the light are beamed every five seconds upto a range of nine nautical miles. The cast iron tower with light and glaeery is painted white.

It is built 20 feet above road level on the ramparts at Point Utrecht bastion within the Galle Fort. From this vantage point ships entering the Galle Harbour can be clearly viewed.

Great Basses and Little Basses Lighthouses

The Great Basses is also known as the Maha Ravana while the Little Basses are known as the Kuda Ravana. They are located in southwest Sri Lanka, 13 km off the coast of the Yala National Park near Kirinde.

The Great Basses and Little Basses light houses are within a short distance of each other and are located on a 13 km long reef. The two offshore light houses standing on two rocks were designed by Alexander Gordon and Sir James Douglass and built by Sir James’s his brother William Douglass.

The Great Basses Lighthouse was built in 1873 and Little Basses was completed five years later.

These tow lighthouses are said to be two of the loneliest lighthouses in existence.

To be continued ...