Digest>Archives> September 2005

Galle Lighthouse

A Beacon of Light at a World Heritage Site

By Preethi Burkholder


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Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

Lighthouse at a World Heritage Site

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Galle Lighthouse keeper U.D. Harischandra
Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

Of all the lighthouses in Sri Lanka, perhaps the one that transports the visitor to colonial times in greatest historic depth is the

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Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

Galle Lighthouse. The Galle Lighthouse is located in the middle of an ancient fort and is surrounded by historic buildings. Its beauty is enhanced by the surrounding fort known as “The Galle Fort.”

In 1988, the Galle Fort was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The lighthouse is located in the Galle Fort, and therefore, is part of the World Heritage Site.

Visiting the Galle Lighthouse is a treat;its majestic location makes an excellent and enjoyable day trip.

Visitors spend hours, days and sometimes even months, admiring the ancient port town of Galle, the Indian Ocean and the Fort. In order to gain a true appreciation for the Galle Lighthouse, detailed references must be made to the historic city and the Fort surrounding it.

Historic City of Galle

Galle is Sri Lanka’s oldest city. Located on the southwestern shore of the island, about 115 km south of the capital city of Colombo, Galle was, for centuries, Sri Lanka’s main port. Galle has a splendid natural harbor. It was clearly chosen as a port for excellent strategic reasons. It has a natural harbor with a south-pointing promontory. The lighthouse is strategically located at the end of the promontory, giving it full view of any invading ships.

The port was used in pre-Christian times. Some historians have suggested that Galle might even be the biblical Tarshish, where King Solomon’s ships called to take on gemstones, spices and scented wood. No archaeological evidence, however, can confirm this. However, records show that the old port of Galle dates back to the times 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 traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited the port – which he calls

“Qali” – in the mid-14th century. The ancient mariners lingered in the port of Galle till the trade winds changed to swell their sails in the direction they needed to sail. Galle was on the spice trade route. For centuries, the Galle Port was where east and west met when trading ships docked at its protected harbor.

Then, the Europeans led by the Portuguese came; they built the first Fort of Galle and named it Santa Cruz in the 16th century. The Portuguese first arrived in 1505, when a fleet commanded by Lorenzo de Almeida took shelter from a storm in the lee of the town. Clearly, the strategic significance of the harbor impressed the Portuguese. Eighty-two years later, in 1587, they seized control of the town from the Sinhala Sri Lankan kings, and began the construction of the Galle Fort. This event marked the beginning of almost four centuries of European domination of the city, resulting in the architecturally, culturally and ethnically fascinating city of Galle.

The Dutch captured the city from the Portuguese in 1640, and immediately began strengthening the fortifications. The Dutch built a

lighthouse at the Galle Fort but it was burnt down during a battle.

It was during the Dutch colonization that the city rose to its greatest prosperity. The Dutch colonization rebuilt the town and strengthened its fortifications. The Dutch remained in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was

then known) for almost 150 years, until the city was taken by the British in 1796.

The British then changed the location of the lighthouse and built one at the edge of the promontory where it is currently standing. Not until 1947 when Ceylon gained its independence from the British did Galle become an independent city once again. By this time, the long years of association with European colonialism had left an indelible stamp on the city, which makes it a unique World Heritage Site.

The Galle Fort contains vital historical buildings that were built between the 15th and 19th centuries. It has become a major tourist attraction in Sri Lanka. Today, the Galle Harbor handles fishing vessels, a certain amount of container traffic as well as a few luxury yachts. It also has a strategic naval base. It is a shadow of its former glory. This adds to the mellow, laid-back and intimate atmosphere of the historic town.

Galle Fort

The showpiece of Galle is the Dutch Fort. It stands majestically along the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The ramparts are colossal and are ideal for walking while viewing the city and the sea. It is a magnificent sight. The southern side of the Fort is the Galle Harbor, fast becoming popular as a marina for yachts that sail the Bay of Bengal on their way to western destinations. The Galle Fort covers an area of 36 hectares and encloses the Dutch museum, the maritime museum, the lighthouse, a clock tower, churches, mosques and several hundred private dwellings.

The real charm of Old Galle lies in the quiet backstreets and

alleyways of the historic Fort, which have changed little – if at all – since colonial times. There are two entries into the Fort: the Main Gate, which was built by the British in 1873 and which pierces the main ramparts; and the more venerable Old Gate, which is farther to the east. Ramparts of the old Fort transport visitors to days of colonization when Europeans were vigilantly watching out for invading ships. Today, the Fort is a place for picnics, strolling through historic buildings or taking a bath in the Indian Ocean to cool off from the tropical heat.

Visiting the Galle Lighthouse

Standing in one corner of the Galle Fort is the lighthouse. It is situated at the edge of the quadrangular Fort and is built 20 feet above the road level on the ramparts. I found that in order to gain a true appreciation for the lighthouse and the grandeur of its surroundings, I would need to spend some time there. It takes at least a full day to explore the Galle Fort properly. However, exploration can be carried out in a leisurely manner by foot within a few hours, which is exactly what I did.

The majestic Fort made for a wonderfully relaxing walk around it, especially at dusk when the setting sun illuminated the historic western ramparts.

When I approached the Galle Lighthouse, the area was bubbling with life.

Children were playing cricket outside the lighthouse and were running back and forth to chase the ball. Sounds of cheers and laughter from the cricketers gave a positive feeling. Cricket was a sport that was introduced to Ceylon when the British ruled the island from 1796-1948, around the same time that the lighthouse was built. I sat under a shady tree and enjoyed the cricket match for a while.

The gates leading to the lighthouse were closed so I decided to wait for a while and see if the keeper would come outside. I was admiring the lighthouse from a shady tree in the distance. It was a round-shaped lighthouse. There was a red arrow at the top for wind direction. Under my impression, the Galle Lighthouse was receiving basic maintenance. The paint was rather faded and parts of the outer coating had peeled off. Given its splendid location, a great deal could be done to make it look impressive.

The small, two-story building adjoining it, which I presumed was the keeper’s quarters, further put a damper on the lighthouse. The quarters were discolored and architecturally flawed. It may have been a recent addition to the lighthouse. The box-looking building did not fit the architectural mould of the adjoining lighthouse.

The exterior was adorned with lines resembling rings. The rings gave the Galle Lighthouse a distinct look. There were 23 lines carved from the top to the bottom. Small black windows, seven in total, gave ventilation to the interior. Each window had six small glass squares with black panes.

The lighthouse was surrounded with colorful floral bushes that are popular in Sri Lankan gardens. Called “crotons”, they added color to the faded lighthouse. Beautiful coconut trees waved to and fro. The trees and bushes helped to create a balance in making the lighthouse look somewhat visually attractive.

About a half hour passed by before one of the cricket batsmen accidentally hit the ball into the lighthouse compound. The children started knocking on the gate to attract attention. They needed to get through the gates to retrieve the cricket ball. A man of about 45 years of age came out. He was thin and sturdy. The unmistakable feature on his face was his smile. As the children rushed into the lighthouse area compound to search for the ball, I, too, quickly entered the premises and approached the well-built, genial-looking man.

“My name is U.D. Harischandra. I am the lighthouses keeper,” he introduced himself, knowing that I was a stranger to the locale. “I wanted to visit the lighthouse and talk to you,” I said. “I will be happy to talk about the lighthouse,” he replied instantly.

“How long have you been taking care of the Galle Lighthouse?”

I asked Harischandra. “Four years. But now things have changed a

lot with the lighthouse maintenance. I don’t climb the lighthouse every day like I used to, to operate the lights. The main office has

an automated system where the lights go on and off through a computer generated system. I still have my job in case there is a power outage: I use the generator at my quarters to switch on the power manually. Daily, about 40-50 ships pass the lighthouse area. The light at the top goes on automatically at night and switches off automatically at dawn,” he said.

My guess was right. The two-story house adjoining the lighthouse was his quarters. It was located within 10 feet of the lighthouse.

A short steel staircase led from the ground to the rooftop of the quarters. Called the keeper’s “tower”, it gave a full-scale view of the Fort and the ocean.

Pleasant sights of people bathing in the sea, children running on the beach and a majestic view of the Galle Fort were breathtaking.

“When was the Galle Lighthouse built?” I asked Harischandra. “The present lighthouse was built during the British era in 1938. During the Dutch era, the lighthouse was located about 100 meters from here, but it was burned down.

“The British chose to build the lighthouse at this present

location. It was constructed by the Government Factory in 1939: headed by Kenneth de Kretser, director of Public Works and G.C. Oram, factory engineer. The Galle Lighthouse is 85 feet tall. I wish I could show you the interior, but I no longer have access to the key. My responsibilities as lighthouse keeper have been fairly diminished with the computer revolution,” Harischandra said, with a smile.

“Do you not operate the lights at all then?” I asked.

“If electricity goes off, then I use the generator in my quarters to manually operate the lights. That is when my assistance is needed,” he said.

“What kinds of steps are there inside, leading to the top?” I asked. “The steps are straight and are extremely steep to the top.” As I got a closer look at the lighthouse base, I noticed that the lower 3 feet of the tower had embossed stones, with square-shaped rock. At the entrance, the year “1939” was carved in colossal proportions.

“Do you enjoy looking after the lighthouse?” I asked Harischandra. “I love it. How fortunate am I to have a job at a World Heritage Site. This is a wonderful place to be in. Everyday, tourists come to visit the Galle Fort and the lighthouse compound is always full of life,” he replied positively. Harischandra has been a lighthouse keeper for 21 years. He did not spend all this time at the Galle Lighthouse, but has been transferred to different lighthouses throughout Sri Lanka over his long career.

I strolled through the Galle Fort as evening came by and had lunch at a friendly inn located close to the lighthouse. I watched in awe as the sun set over the Indian Ocean and covered the lighthouse tower. It was a pleasant day spent at a World Heritage Site.

This story appeared in the September 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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