Digest>Archives> June 2005

Sri Lanka's Batticaloa Lighthouse needs to be saved

By Preethi Burkholder


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When the waters of the tsunami came to ...
Photo by: Trent Burkholder

The state of decline on the Muttuwaran Lighthouse saddened me. Once, it was the pride of the eastern coast and a beacon of light and hope for thousands of ships and sailors at sea. Today, however, it was crumbling in ruins.

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Navaratnam is the keeper of the Batticaloa ...
Photo by: Trent Burkholder

The unique feature about the Batticaloa Lighthouse in Sri Lanka is its strategic location. Also known as the “Muttuwaran” lighthouse, it has been built on the landmark where the ocean meets the lagoon. Few lighthouses in the world can boast this kind of geographical location, but the Muttuvaran Lighthouse in the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, is one of them.

I visited the Muttuvaran Lighthouse in January 2005 when I was helping the town and its people to rebuild after the tsunami that had devastated the area.

The lighthouse is located in the town of Batticaloa, a small and intimate fishing town. The lighthouse is about a 20-minute drive from the heart of the town and is situated on Bar Road.

My guide to the lighthouse was Uncle Sonny, a long-term resident of Batticaloa who has been living in the town for over 65 years. As we traveled about three kilometers on Bar Road, we took a turn to the right to Lagoon Road. The drive on Lagoon Road was breathtaking. I felt the lagoon and ocean breeze blowing gently on my face. It was a pleasant mix of ocean and lagoon fragrances.

“See that bar of sand in the middle of the ocean?” Uncle pointed his finger at the sea.

Sure enough, I was able to see a sand bar about half a kilometer from the lagoon. “A lagoon is an area of shallow water separated from the sea by low banks. That thin bar of sand divides the lagoon from the ocean. The strip of sand got much smaller and washed away after the tsunami,” Uncle Sonny explained. In the distance, I watched in awe at the thin strip of sand dividing the lagoon water from the ocean water; hence the name “Bar” Road.

I had never seen this unique geographical feature before and it was fascinating how nature divided these two areas of water. “In the local Tamil language, “Muttuwaran” means “where the lagoon meets the ocean,” Uncle Sonny enlightened me. Now I understood why the lighthouse was called “Muttuwaran.”

Reaching the lighthouse site was an ordeal. Along the road was debris from the tsunami. Boats that had crashed against houses, shattered glass, and uprooted trees interfered with our drive. The bridge over the lagoon leading to the lighthouse had partly collapsed. I shivered as we drove the vehicle over the broken bridge, fearing it might give way to the mighty lagoon. After traveling on lagoon road for another three kilometers, Uncle Sonny made a right turn. The lighthouse was at the end of a small byroad.

The state of decline on the Muttuwaran Lighthouse saddened me. Once, it was the pride of the eastern coast and a beacon of light and hope for thousands of ships and sailors at sea. Today, however, it was crumbling in ruins.

The Muttuwaran Lighthouse was on complete neglect and was in the verge of destruction.

The natural beauty surrounding the lighthouse however, was spectacular. Beautiful palmyrah trees provided shade to the lighthouse; coconut trees soared on its sides; and the lagoon water flowed on one side of the lighthouse, while the ocean waves gently crashed against the other side.

I inquired from locals about the lighthouse keeper. Finding out that he lived right next to the lighthouse I approached his dwellings. He did not have any official quarters but lived in a small hut adjoining the lighthouse. Upon hearing of my visit, he eagerly came outside and introduced himself.

The lighthouse keeper’s name is Navaratnam. He is about 40 years old.

“Did the tsunami destroy any parts of the lighthouse?” I asked Navaratnam. “The tsunami broke the outer wall to bits and the lower part of the lighthouse was damaged. The tsunami did not damage the lighthouse structure itself though. The Muttuwaran Lighthouse has been falling apart for a while due to utter neglect. There is very little attention being given to preserve it,” Navaratnam said in a low tone.

“How do you operate the lights at night?” I asked Navaratnam. “The lighthouse functions at interim time periods. The light in the observatory deck works sometimes. It is turned on only on some days when the light is working,” Navaratnam said.

I entered the lighthouse, hoping I could make the ascent to the top. Alas, I was disappointed. It was a difficult climb as there were no steps. I did not want to risk a fall. The way to climb was to keep the ladder at the base of each floor. There was a rusted, old ladder leaning against the wall. “That is the ladder I use when I climb the top,” Navaratnam said. It was a straight, steep, and dangerous climb, and I was not ready to handle major injuries. Had there been steps, it would have been a pleasant, winding climb. This would have to be constructed in the future.

I took a peek at the ground floor. The absence of electric switches on the ground floor was an indication that the lighthouse keeper was operating the lights through another source. I saw electric wires outside, which may have provided the answer to my question. Electric wires go through the exterior of the lighthouse, further interfering with its beauty.

The Muttuvaran Lighthouse is 83 feet tall. It was built in 1913, when the British ruled Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called. The lighthouse has five windows. The observatory at the top has a radius of six feet. The balcony at the top is painted in red and there are two railings to provide support for the balcony. The lower section of the lighthouse has a façade that is now falling apart. The façade is made up of cement blocks that are now broken into pieces.

The lighthouse badly needs several coats of paint. When I asked the lighthouse keeper when it was last painted he did not know. This was an indication that the lighthouse had not been painted since 1993, as that is when Navaratnam began his post as the keeper. The outer coating was in bad shape. “Our town does not have the money to paint the lighthouse,” he replied. Indeed, for nearly 20 years, the town of Batticaloa was in the throes of a civil war. It has only been in the last three years that the town has been experiencing a refreshing breeze of peace. “A lighthouse would have been of little importance when a war was dragging on for two decades” I thought to myself.

According to the observations that I made on the keeper and the conversations that I had with him, it appeared to me that he was struggling to survive. It did not seem like he was being paid enough to upkeep the lighthouse nor to look after his family.

I felt sad because Muttuvaran could be a majestic lighthouse, if only someone recognized the significance of preserving it. Unfortunately, the lighthouse compound is not maintained at all. From visiting the town and talking to Navaratnam as well as other locals, I realized that the primary cause for the decline of the lighthouse was economic. If Navaratnam was given the resources to buy cement to build the wall that once stood around the lighthouse, apply paint, fix the observatory light that would be invaluable to sailors, and repair the staircase going to the top, he would. He cannot preserve the lighthouse due to insufficient funds and the lack of appreciation given to preserving the lighthouse. After meeting with Navaratnam,

I realized that he would take pride in taking care of the lighthouse if he were given a chance. However, the scarcity of funds has prevented him from upkeeping Muttuvaran.

Upon seeing the state of decline of the lighthouse, I took the initiative to donate the little money I had to paint the exterior of the lighthouse. I would like to see the

lighthouse restored to its original beauty and to have it functioning again as a beacon of light to seamen.

During my next visit to Sri Lanka, I will personally help Navaratnam to paint the lighthouse. My future goals will be to gather funds to rebuild the wall that was destroyed by the tsunami and to fix the observatory lights at the deck. Being a fishing town, the Muttuvaran Lighthouse can serve an invaluable reference point to thousands of fishermen at sea. The town of Batticaloa would love to see the lighthouse rising in its past splendor. With a little funding and some initiative, this goal can be attained.


Preethi Burkholder is the Sri Lankan tsunami relief efforts coordinator for Asafo Global Medical Trust, which is an American non-profit organization providing medical supplies to Sri Lanka. She will be revisiting Sri Lanka to rebuild the Muttuvaran Lighthouse and to help tsunami survivors. She would like to see this beautiful lighthouse restored to its former glory.

Readers interested in offering help to rebuild Muttuvaran Lighthouse may contact Preethi at 417H Airport Business Center, Aspen, CO 81611 or call her at (970) 544-1731 or e-mail her at preethiburkholder@hotmail.com

This story appeared in the June 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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