TODAY -

Chennai, a city with four lighthouses

S Balakrishnan *



Madras (Chennai) grew along with the East India Company of the English. It was here that the Company started constructing its first fort named Fort St. George - on the soil of India in 1639; an agreement was signed on 22nd August 1639 between the Company and the representative of Vijayanagar Empire to buy that piece ofland called Chennapatnam or Madraspatnam. Hence this day is observed as Madras Day.

As the Company aimed at sea trade, it built this fort bang on the beach (which, though, has now receded a few kilometers away). Naturally, therefore, the first lighthouse of Madras was set up within Fort St. George complex, the White Town.

The 'free merchants' (those who engaged in private trade in addition to the trade carried out by the East India Company) established a Public Exchange for ease of business within this Fort. A building was constructed in 1790 within the Fort complex for this purpose. The roof of this Public Exchange building was where the first lighthouse of Madras was established in 1796.

This Public Exchange building was converted as Officers' Mess in 1861; later, much later, in 1948 (after independence), it was converted as the Fort Museum managed by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The lighthouse functioned from atop this Public Exchange building until 1841, for 45 years. Its lantern had large hungry wicks fed with coconut oil.

The 12 lamps swept the light 25 miles into Bay of Bengal with the aid of small country mirrors. The second lighthouse was constructed north of this first lighthouse at what is today the high court complex. The need for an exclusive lighthouse was felt and so this was completed and commissioned on 1st January 1844.

It is a 38 met. (124.5 feet) tall Doric fluted stone tow. (Doric is one of the three orders of ancient Greek and lat. Roman architecture, and fluting is an architectural style consisting of shallow grooves running along the surface). The stone tower cost Rs.60,000. The base of this lighthouse has the Standard Bench Mark survey point of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of the Indian subcontinent (1802-1871).

With the base of this lighthouse at zero sea level, it was one of the nine points used to measure the height of geographical locations above sea level, including the elevation of hill stations like The Nilgiris. This second lighthouse functioned until 1894, for 50 years. This 2nd lighthouse used flashing light with the aid of Argand lamps and reflectors. [Argand lamp is an improved version of oil lamp invented in 1780 by Aime Argand]

The third lighthouse of Madras started functioning from the central dome of the Madras High Court building that was newly constructed. The central dome was so designed as to carry the lighthouse equipment. From this dome tower the third lighthouse started functioning from 1st June 1894. Set at a height of 175 ft. above sea level, it used kerosene vapour lamp till the advent of electric power and was in use till 1977, i.e., for 83 long years!

This lighthouse was the target of attack by the German warship Emden during World War I. Luckily the bombs did not reach the target but damaged a portion of the compound wall of the high court. The fourth lighthouse of Madras (now Chennai) and the one currently functioning was commissioned on 10th January 1977. This modern RCC triangular tow. is 46m (150.919ft.) .

Among all these four, only this lighthouse has the traditional red & white band on its surface. It is bang on Chennai's famous Marina beach in Santhome locality. Its powerful lighting equipment has a range of 28 nautical miles (51.856 km)! Besides, this is the only active lighthouse in India situated within city limits and to have an electric lift.

From atop this lighthouse one gets a panoramic view of Bay of Bengal on the East, the sprawling city on the West and the world's 2nd longest Marina beach on North and South. Somehow I consider its triangular design as inappropriate for the Marina Beach which has a row of majestic colonial buildings in Indo-Saracenic style just across the road.

This fourth lighthouse is 25 ft. shorter than the third one and 25 ft. taller than the 2nd lighthouse. As the first lighthouse was on the terrace of the two-storied Public Exchange building, it was probably at a height of around 100 ft.; but it was so close to the sea that the waves were virtually touching the walls of the Fort.

As I stood mesmerized by the enchanting view from top of Chennai's modern lighthouse, I remembered such a sight from atop the 2nd lighthouse of Madras, back in 1960. I must have been around 4-5 years old then but the sight is etched in my memory. The moving motor vehicles looked like toys to me from a height of 124 ft., and I demanded of my parents to buy those moving toys for me!

Now visitors are not allowed to climb up either this 2nd lighthouse or the 3rd lighthouse, but the modem lighthouse is open for tourists. I had climbed the 2nd and 4th lighthouses of Madras/Chennai besides India's southernmost lighthouse at Indira Point at the tip of Great Nicobar Island, though it was an unauthorized visit in 1979.

The traditional circular lighthouse with red & white bands across its wall is always an eye catcher and brings out the child in you.


* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on August 29 2022.



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