- Beacons of Life -
One of my dreams has been to climb a lighthouse and enjoy the sunset from the tower. This dream came true during a lighthouse tour of Sri Lanka.
Beruwela lighthouse is located on Barberyn Island on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. An exciting 10-minute boat ride from the town of Beruwela transported me to Barberyn, a place removed from the hustle and bustle of people, cars and traffic. The island is a slice of paradise nestled in the Indian Ocean.
Three-quarters of Barberyn is covered with coconut trees, Plumeria flowers, mango and cashew trees, and the cooling shade of buffalo grass. Exotic birds, reptiles and insects roam the island and I felt an instant bonding with nature.
My guide, Fernando, led the way along a circular gravel path to the lighthouse. The grand, yellow tower stood majestically at the edge of a 30-metre cliff.
One of the keepers greeted us enthusiastically. Rohan was more than happy to indulge in some lighthouse storytelling. "Imagine living in an era with no radio communications, electric lights or navigational aids and your sailboat was on the spice trade route from England to Ceylon. How do you avoid dangerous rocks when it is pitch-black at night? What tools do you use for navigation? Who's there to shine a light in the darkness?
"Lighthouses came into existence during this era. The two main purposes of a lighthouse were to serve as a navigational aid and to warn ships of dangerous areas. A lighthouse was like a traffic sign at sea".
"How is the Beruwela Light operated?" I asked, as I became interested in the practical purpose of the magnificent tower.
"Five keepers take turns to watch the lighthouse.
The light goes on from 6.30 pm until 6.30 am. The light rotates for one minute each time and directs sailors".
We walked around, admiring some of the few man-made structures on the island. An old well built by the British, that once supplied water to the inhabitants, was now abandoned; but the clay roofed hut, which was a bar for the keepers years ago, is still a place to socialise although there are no gin and tonics.
After relishing a picnic lunch under some shady cashew trees, we headed towards the mainland. We stayed at Ypsylon Guest House, a friendly hotel run by a German, which offered fantastic views of the lighthouse at night.
The following day we proceeded towards the historic town of Galle. "Of the 14 remaining lighthouses in Sri Lanka only the Galle lighthouse is located at a World Heritage Site", Fernando explained. "For centuries, Galle was Sri Lanka's main port as it has an excellent natural harbour.
The port of Galle dates back to the time when Arab traders sailed to China in search of eastern riches. Galle was their last haven before crossing the Bay of Bengal. Perhaps one of the earliest recorded references to Galle comes from the great Arab traveller Iban Battuta, who visited the port, which he calls Qali, in the mid 14th century. Galle was central to the spice trade route".
The Galle lighthouse is situated inside the landmark Galle Fort. It is built seven metres above the road on the ramparts.
Harischandra, the lighthouse keeper, was on hand to answer our questions. "Do you enjoy looking after the lighthouse?" I asked him.
I Love it. I'm fortunate to have a job at a World Heritage Site. This is a wonderful place to be. Everyday, tourists come to visit the Galle Fort and the lighthouse compound is always full of life. " He was right. At that very moment children were playing cricket on the lawn surrounding the lighthouse and tourists strolled by to admire the tower.
"I don't climb the lighthouse every day to operate the lights like I used to," continued Harischandra.
"The lights are operated through a computer. The light at the top goes on automatically at night and switches off automatically at dawn. I still have my job in case there is a power outage," he said with a touch of sadness.
My last visit was to Dondra lighthouse on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Dondra is located six kilometres southeast from the town of Matara.
"Dondra is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka, "Fernando explained as we drove along the narrow lane leading to it. Entering the Dondra lighthouse premises is like approaching a secluded monastery.
Coconut trees, Bougainvillea flowers and cooling grass surround the lighthouse area. The fresh breeze, freely offered by the Indian Ocean, cooled the heat. We walked along a sand path to the keeper's quarters.
Keerthi Weerarathne is a genial character with many stories to tell. "I have been a keeper for more than 25 years. My father was also a keeper so I followed in his footsteps." "What was it like to be lighthouse keeper 200 years ago, and what is it like today?" I asked.
"Most visitors forget that the keeper is the element that makes the lighthouse system work. Without a keeper, a lighthouse is a mere structure, standing at the edge of the sea. A keeper is like oxygen, fuelling the flames to make the tower come alive."
Nowadays, lighthouse keepers are connected through radio, computers and telephones. However, it was different centuries ago. Keepers were usually stationed at isolated locations and sometimes risked their lives to save drowning sailors. For centuries, lighthouse keepers have symbolised stoicism, heroism, duty and faithfulness.
Before electricity was used to light the Statue of Liberty lighthouse in New York harbour in 1879, lighthouses were run using oil such as whale oil or lard oil. The job of the lighthouse keeper was to go up and down the steps several times during the night to maintain the light. If the lighthouse keeper failed in his job, ships could be wrecked.
Keepers earned the name 'Wickie' because one of their chores was to trim the burned lamp wick, so it would not smoke and dirty the lens. It was very important to keep both the lens and the lantern room windows clean so the light would not be diminished in any way.
Keepers also had to operate fog signals and fog bells during nights when the light was not visible. Sometimes canons were fired. Today, canons are archaic as an automatic sensor, which detects moisture in the air, turns on the fog signals when needed.
"The age of the Internet, radio beacons and GPS positioning are fulfilling roles once performed by keepers," Weerarathne said with a sense of nostalgia.
"Did the tsunami come here?" I asked. "Yes. It was December 26, 2004. Around nine in the morning I noticed that the ocean around Dondra had receded about 100 metres. It was almost like the ocean had evaporated. I was able to see corals, rocks, and fish struggling to survive. I had never seen this happen in all my 22 years of being the keeper at Dondra. Some locals walked in to catch fish by hand. We did not know that the reason for the water receding was a force 9.0 underwater earthquake."
"Did you see the waves coming?" I asked, almost visualising the mighty waves that were about to hit the lighthouse area. "Yes. The first wave was not colossal. It came more forcefully than usual and crashed against the rocks. It was the second wave that brought water to the lighthouse area and also to my quarters. I was showing the lighthouse to some school children at the time. We all ran for our lives.
Fortunately, no one died from our little town.
We stayed on higher ground until the water receded. A few climbed the lighthouse for safety," Weerarathne said, taking a pause to reflect upon those who were not as lucky.
The interior of Dondra is as magnificent as the exterior. There are 196 winding steps in a spiral staircase leading to the top. It was a special experience to be able to climb the stairs just as the keepers did and picture what life was like in times past.
The view from the top of the lighthouse was spectacular. Fishing boats made their way home, coconut trees waved to and fro and the clear blue sea met the endless sky. The most cherished scene for me was to enjoy the sunset from the top. It was a stunning spectacle. The keepers that I met at Beruwela, Galle and Dondra turned out to have some of the most colourful personalities that I had ever encountered in my life.
They were full of life, had many interesting stories to tell and loved what they did for a living. The lighthouse keepers captured the quintessential essence of the vast majority of Sri Lankans who live away from the spotlight. They all share a silent, but profound dedication to their country and take pride in what they do for a living.
By Deepal V. Perera
Sampur, which has been liberated by the Security Forces from the LTTE terrorists (in 2007) , is home to one of the most famous lighthouses in the country. The Lighthouse at Foul Point has been guiding seafarers safely to their destinations for decades.
June 23, 2007