Digest>Archives> June 2006

Beruwela (Barberyn) Lighthouse, Sri Lanka

By Preethi Burkholder


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Called the “finest island of its size in the world” by Marco Polo in 1292, Sri Lanka nestles at the foot of India, with its balmy blue waters lapping along the coast. I have traveled extensively throughout Sri Lanka, exploring many hidden corners the exotic island has to offer. Few places however could match the beauty and seclusion offered by Beruwela (Barberyn) Island, home to the Beruwela (Barberyn) Lighthouse.

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Beruwela or Barberyn Lighthouse is located in one of the most breathtaking places in Sri Lanka. It is a slice of paradise nestling in the Indian Ocean. The name of the town “Beruwela” has an interesting history to it. When the Arabs landed in the coastal town centuries ago, they docked their boats here. “Be” in the local Sinhala language means “unloaded,” and “Ruwela” means “catamaran.” Hence “Beruwela” is derived to mean “where the sail boats were unloaded.”

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Beruwela is an intimate fishing town located in the southwestern shores of Sri Lanka. It is a peaceful town and is a popular place for tourists to get away, especially during the winter months in their home countries. It offers a tropical, warm climate and a beautiful coast. Beruwela is about a 45-minute drive from Colombo, the location of the international airport.

Catamarans are found in abundance and seafood delights are plentiful. Hotels are available to suit all wallets, Ayurveda spas are plentiful, and you will never run out of things to do.

Getting to the Lighthouse Island

Once in Beruwela I inquired from hotels or locals about organizing a boat ride. It is an exciting ten-minute boat ride to get to the island. Most places offer this service for a reasonable charge ranging from $8-$15.

The Beruwela Lighthouse is located on an island and is not land accessible. In essence, it is in an island within the island of Sri Lanka. As you approach Beruwela, in the distance you can see the island, full of greenery, and a small white steeple jutting through the trees. The steeple, of course, is the lighthouse tower.

From a distance the island looked quite small. Once I arrived there however, I realized that it is fairly large, perhaps eight acres or so. It is about 20 feet above sea level and is inhabited by the five lighthouse keepers whose job is to maintain the graceful structure.

Seventy-five percent of the Barberyn Island is covered with coconut trees, plumeria flowers, mango trees, cashew trees, and the cooling buffalo grass. A weed known as “Habarala Leaves” seems to have taken over much of the vegetation. Habarala is a large leaf that some locals use as an “umbrella” when it rains. It is also used to decorate indigenous healing ritual sites.

At the Barberyn Island however, Habarala seems to be the unwanted weed. There are also exotic birds roaming the island. It is ideal to have a picnic or meditate.

The island has what I would call the “front side” and the “rear.” The boat arrived in the rear. I had to walk along a circular gravel path to get to the lighthouse, which is in the front side. The front side of the island is exposed to the sea while the rear is exposed to land.

A Green Island

The Beruwela Lighthouse Island is essentially a green island and has largely been left undisturbed. The following are the only visible manmade structures at the Beruwela Lighthouse Island as of April 2006:

1. The lighthouse

The Beruwela Lighthouse is in excellent condition. It is being maintained very well and has a dedicated crew taking care of it. It is fully functional. The lighthouse itself stands about 50 feet above sea level on a cliff. Hard rocks surround it, protecting it from the waves.

The lighthouses premises are pristine and immaculate. A well maintained vegetation and a cooling lawn decorate the beautiful tower. I met with one of the keepers, who indulged me in some “lighthouse storytelling.” Every boat or ship going to Maldives, which is the string of atolls close to Sri Lanka, has to pass the Beruwela lighthouse area. Therefore, the lighthouse serves an important function.

There are only four international lighthouses in Sri Lanka, and Beruwela Lighthouse is one of them. The British built the lighthouse in 1928. At least, that is the date of the construction of the present day lighthouse. It is hard to say if any other lighthouse existed here before then. “It is 110 feet tall, or 38 meters,” the keeper explained. He has been taking care of the lighthouse since the age of 12 and considers the tower as one of his own children. I was awed by his dedication to the Beruwela Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is yellow and round, with embossed stones on the exterior. Divided into five stories, each story has two windows, giving plenty of ventilation inside. The window lattice is also painted in yellow. A total of 140 steps lead to the top, which offers spectacular scenes of the mainland and the sea. Much of the southern coastal line is visible. From the lighthouse tower one can get spectacular views of the Kalultara Temple, which is a Buddhist temple of major significance in Sri Lanka. The white round dome of the Kalutara Temple can be seen miles away. Smaller islands can also be seen in the distance. The outer stones are embossed and look similar to the stone structure at Dondra Lighthouse in Matara.

According to the keeper, the glass at the tower is still the original glass installed by the British in 1928. Not a single glass has had to be replaced since the lighhouse was built. This is a tribute to British engineering and architecture.

“At first the lighthouse was operated by the Imperial Lighthouse Service. Even after Ceylon gained independence from the British in 1948, the Beruwela Lighthouse was still maintained by Englishmen, until 1972. I was taking care of the lighthouse when Ceylon was still under the British. It was a different era then. The Sri Lanka Navy took over in 1972. Since 1984 the Sri Lanka Ports Authority has been overseeing the maintenance of the Beruwela Lighthouse. Today, it is under the supervision of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority,” the keeper explained, as I admired the vistas ahead of me.

“The light goes on from 6:30 pm till 6:30 am. However, if the weather is foggy then the lights are turned on even at 2:00 pm. The light rotates for one minute and gives direction to sailors. When the light rotates and the ships cannot see it for a few seconds, that means it is showing where the land is. When the light reflects towards the sea, that means it is showing the sea. Consisting of 20 bulbs, it gives out 5000 watts. If one bulb burns, then the entire line of bulbs must be replaced,” he explained about his job of turning on and off the lights everyday.

2. The lightstation

Adjoining the lighthouse is the lightstation. It is an example of a fully functional lightstation. There are two oval tanks right next to the lighthouse. They are rainwater harvest tanks. The island has no pipe-borne water. The only way the five keepers can get water is to store rainwater, purify it, and then use it for drinking. The lighthouse keepers’ quarters, with five rooms, are next to the lighthouse. An old stonehouse, built during the time of the British, continues to look majestic. The stone makes the interior cooling; however, the kitchen is no longer in use. The stonehouse is used today to store equipment. The stove, the chimney, and some of the utensils used by the British are still in fair condition.

3. An abandoned building in the middle of the island

A gray building stands on the hilltop. At one point it was the home of the caretaker. Today, however, it is abandoned.

4. The stores

From a distance a small house with clay tile roofs can be seen. This looks like a recent structure and is the first thing that you see when you arrive on the island. It is also the most visible manmade structure from land. It was once the “stores,” where the British entertained, wined, and dined. It is the equivalent of a bar or place for relaxation. Today, however, the stores are abandoned. There is nothing inside except bird droppings. From the stores, however, I was able to get stunning views of the ocean crashing against the rocks.

5. The abandoned well in the middle of the island

I had to hike through the Olinda vines, which is an indigenous vine that bears colorful seeds, in order to come to a scenic spot engulfed by large trees. It is a bay area with rocks, and the water gently lapped at my feet. Amidst the rocks was a well, which is now considered historic. The British built it perhaps over a century ago. At one point, the well supplied drinking water. Today, however, it has dried and is abandoned. It is a pleasant and cool place to sit and relax.

6. A manmade staircase

Now overgrown with weeds, the staircase once was the path from the well to the lighthouse. This, too, was built during the British occupation and is today considered historic.

7. A four-foot wall

A four-foot wall separates the lighthouse premises from the rest of the island, which is owned by a private individual. Half of the lighthouse is owned by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority while the other half is owned by a private individual.

Visiting Beruwela

If the thought of visiting Sri Lanka is a possibility, consider a boat ride to Beruwela Island. A visit to the Beruwela lighthouse is more than a regular visit to a lighthouse. It is a wildlife excursion, a place to contemplate, and above all, a place to escape from the rest of the world. It is one of the few places where you can feel so removed from people and be connected with nature.

The Beruwela Lighthouse in Sri Lanka is a special place with a lot of hidden treasures. It transports you to a bygone era, when there was more greenery than construction, and keepers lived in isolated stations and manned remote lighthouses.

If someone asks me “what was the prettiest place that you have visited in Sri Lanka?” I would not hesitate to say “Beruwela Lighthouse.”

Editor’s Note: Preethi Burkholder travels to Sri Lanka several times a year and organizes tour packages for tourists. You can visit her website at www.giftedhandswriting.com

for more articles on Sri Lankan lighthouses. For further information, contact preethiburkholder@hotmail.com.

This story appeared in the June 2006 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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