Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2011

India's Temple Top Lighthouse

By I.C.R. Prasad


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Mahabalipur Lighthouse.
Photo by: I.C.R. Prasad

The first place where the English traded on the east coast of India was at Pettapody, near the modern port of Nizamapatinam. The British East India Company was established by some enterprising traders in 1613, and in 1619 they established a factory at Pulicat in Tamilnadu, where they met opposition from the Dutch who already had a settlement there. This forced them to open a major settlement at Armaghon in the Nellore coast in 1628. In 1639, owing partly to annoyances caused to the company’s officers at Masulipatinam by the subordinates of the Sultan of Golconda, where the company had major investments in weaving and dyeing industries, Francis Day, the British Chief 0fficial at Armaghon, approached the last representative of Vijayanagar, who lived at Chandragiri in North Arcot, and then bought the rights to a big plot owned by him in the coast of Madras. The work of a small fort on that land by British was completed on 23rd March 1640, the day being St. George day. The fort was named Fort St. George, and later that fort became the hub of all activities of the British East India Company in south India. When the Company was transformed by the Government of India under the British Crown in 1858, Fort St. George and Madras became the Headquarters of Madras State.

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Shore Temple.
Photo by: I.C.R. Prasad

Madras was an open sea port where the goods were loaded and unloaded at the seashore using long boats. In 1769, a suggestion came from Warren Hastings to build a pier at Madras. Step by step, wharfs and breakwaters were constructed for the safe harboring of ships and loading and unloading of goods directly to wharfs. Being an open sea port, accumulation of sand inside the port area was the major problem faced by Madras Harbor.

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Olakaneeswara Temple. (P
Photo by: I.C.R. Prasad

A cyclonic storm that hit the Madras coast in of May 1811 devastated the Harbour to an enormous extent, and 120 vessels were lost on the Madras road alone. To revive the port, Engineer Mr. Parkes was assigned to Madras, by the Government of India, and he submitted a detailed report, recommending the reconstruction of damaged break waters and wharfs. Mr. Parkes’ recommendations were referred to a three-member committee of well known engineers and the construction, according to the plans of these three engineers, commenced in 1883. The work of the Harbor with extended break-waters, new wharfs, and a new entrance was completed by December 31, 1885.

With a sufficient amount of money having been invested on infrastructure development and modernization of the port, authorities decided to attract more and more ships and traders to Madras in order to attain a positive growth in the volume of imports and exports passing through it. To improve the image of Madra Harbor as the best and safest one of the Bay of Bengal coast, authorities also decided to look into arrangements for a safe path for ships to Madras. The only danger in the vicinity was Tripasore reef, around 40 miles south of Madras near Seven Pagodas.

In December, 1885, the Madras port officer wrote to the Madras State Government proposing the building of a lighthouse to warn the sailors about the danger from the Tripasore reef. Since the light was meant for the safety of Madras port, it was proposed that the cost of construction and maintenance of the lighthouse be taken from the port funds. Favorable orders were passed in January, 1886 and the Port officer was advised to find the best site for the erection of the light and submit a detailed estimate.

Mr. T. E. Marshall, then Acting Port officer of Madras, after visiting the site, recommended placing the light on the abandoned “Olakaneeswara Temple,” atop one of the rocks called Seven Pagodas by mariners, and the Governor-General in Council, approved this proposal and sanction was accorded in April, 1886. It was also proposed to utilize the fourth order optic that would soon become surplus at Santopilly lighthouse on the same coast, after installation of the new second order optic there.

Seven Pagodas*, currently called Mahabalipur is situated around 55 kilometers south of Madras (which is presently called as Chennai). It is comprised of several hills, like granite rocks in the sea shore, and has several beautiful rock hand-carved temples. A good part of these temples were left incomplete, as if the people who constructed them left in a hurry. Archeologists have several different theories in this regard to support their claims, and when the lighthouse was proposed, the place was in an abandoned condition. Even though there are several stone carved temples at Seven Pagodas, there is only one Pagoda, or “Shore temple,” believed to be constructed during the Pandians’ rule in the 6th or 7th century. The local people believe that there were seven pagoda-type temples during the Pandian’s period and six of them were swallowed up by the sea; but the archeological diggings and underwater surveys could not prove the existence of any such structures under the sea in the vicinity.

The rocks, or rather hills of stone, on which the temples are carved, are clearly visible from the sea and were one of the principal marks of the mariners as they approached the coast, and to them, the place was known as Seven Pagodas, possibly because the summits of the rock presented them with that image as they passed.

Another popular belief among the local population of Mahabalipuram is that the Olakaneeswara temple was an old bonfire lighthouse. They believe that a bonfire was lit on the Olakaneeswara temple that stands on top of the Mahishasuramardini cave temple. There has been a flourishing port at Mahabalipuram to guide mariners since the Pallava period in the 13th Centruy. But archeological surveys and diggings have not found any substantive evidence in this regard to date. Moreover the claim of “Pallavas” constructed the Mahabalipuram temples is also is being questioned by some archeologists since the nineteenth century.

The Olakaneeswara Temple with beautiful carved figures all around, was a temple of Lord ‘Siva’ (Olakaneeswara means ‘Lord of the World’ in the local language), and the idol was thrown out of the sanctum by some vandals at the end of eighteenth century or at the advent of nineteenth century. The image of a bonfire lighthouse was connected with this structure, and the old Seven Pagodas oil lamp lit lighthouse was placed on this structure during the period from 1887 to 1900.

The Superintending Engineer of Public Works Department, who visited Seven Pagodas immediately after completion of the construction, was not pleased with the way the ancient temple and its celebrated carvings was spoiled, and opinion from an archeologist was sought before further damaging it. Even though the archeologist had no doubt about the antiquity of the temple and he regretted the mindless actions of the authorities, he could do nothing it since the damages were already been done.

The archeological surveyor’s report blaming the Port and Public Works Department authorities for disfiguring an old temple full of sculptures put the Government in a bad position. Although they may have been remorseful on the commissioning of the lighthouse, especially, since the Superintendent of lighthouse was entrusted with the responsibility for protecting all the ancient monuments at Mahabalipuram and stopping vandalism on these structures, however, the arrangement continued until the Archeological Survey of India took over the structures for their protection.

The old lantern room and lighting equipment brought from Santapille were installed on the platform provided above the temple,and the illuminant was a three wick coconut oil lamp with a parabolic mirror at the back, to reflect the light towards sea, for maximum efficiency. Instead of the e chimneys used at Santapille, red chimneys were placed on the lamp, for the light was declared as a red light for identification. The light, which had a range of ten miles, was commissioned in February of 1887.

Even though the red light at Seven Pagodas was suppose to have a range of 10 miles, in bad weather the performance of the light was not satisfactory and, after complaints from mariners, the Madras Government considered the matter seriously and subsequently favored an eighteen mile revolving light and for construction of a new lighthouse was sanctioned in 1899.

The new lighthouse tower was constructed on a rock adjacent to the Olakaneeswara temple structure, using granite stones available at that area. The 26 meter high, cylindrical tower was constructed using dressed granite stones fixed in cement mortar. 76 well dressed granite slabs were embedded in the tower wall to form a spiral staircase to reach the service room, and from that point there are 17 soft stone steps to take one to lantern room, with iron handrails for protection all over.

For the new lighthouse, the lantern room and the second order optical equipment with 55mm petroleum vapor burners of new lighthouse were supplied by Chance Brothers of England. When the revolving catadioptric light was commissioned in the year 1900, the character of light was a triple flash in every 20 seconds; but later in 1940, it was decided to change the character of the light to single white flash every ten seconds and this was obtained by rearranging the bull-eyes of the optic.

The tower of the Mahabalipur Lighthouse was constructed with dressed granite stones and was never painted due to the archeological importance of the place, and the tower blends in with the second century A. D. structures and the surroundings.

The catadioptric revolving optic installed in 1900 is still in use at the Mahabalipur Lighthouse and is in good condition. The illuminant was changed to a 3500W, 110V electric incandescent lamp in 1994, and later in August of 2004, a cluster of 3 Nos. 150W, 230V Metal halide lamps was installed. The clock-work mechanism for rotation of the optic has been replaced by electronic pulse motors.

Mahabalipuram, a the major tourist attraction of south India, is now being visited by thousands of tourists daily, and the Olakaneeswara temple structure and the new lighthouse tower hold their heads high among the sixth century structures.

*Seven Pagodas, named Mavalivaram in ancient records, then Mahabalipuram (an exonym created by the British), is now named Mamallapuram by the State Government. The lighthouse has been called Mahabalipur Lighthouse since the 1930s.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 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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