Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2014

The Lighthouse with a Gilded Dome

By ICR Prasad


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High Court building.
Photo by: ICR Prasad

After the Vatican, it seems that the richest gods are from India. For centuries, wealth was amassed in Indian temples. Devotees offered gold and precious stones to the temples to please the gods and to escape from the wrath of their sins. Some kings even offered their country itself to the god they believed in, and ruled the country on behalf of that god.

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High Court main tower.
Photo by: ICR Prasad

The wealth of the country was amassed inside the secret vaults constructed inside the temple complexes in the form of gold and precious stones. A good percentage of this wealth was looted by western intruders. Temple authorities are not authorized to sell the gold and precious stones offered by devotees, so they used them to make crowns and ornaments, to decorate the idols, and later they covered the idols, sanctums, flag masts, temple domes, and the temples themselves with gold.

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View from the High Court building of the second ...
Photo by: ICR Prasad

Mimicking the Hindu temples, several Christian churches also covered their crosses, flag staffs and altars with gold. But a lighthouse with a gilded dome? That may be very rare or even nonexistent in the world. Before coming to such a conclusion, it is important to know that there was a lighthouse in India with a gilded dome - it is the third Madras Lighthouse.

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Madras New Chennai Lighthouse.
Photo by: ICR Prasad

Madras has a history of five centuries. A long tract of barren land on the coast of Bay of Bengal, purchased by Mr. Francisco, the representative of British East India Company in 1612 from an heir of the erstwhile Vijayanagara kingdom, was later developed as Madras. To protect the British entrepreneurs from the possible attacks of local rulers or from the Dutch and French who settled at Pulicat and Pondicherry, a fort was built at Madras. The construction work of the fort was completed in 1642 on Saint George’s Day, and thus the fort was named Fort Saint George. British East India Company ruled south India, keeping Fort Saint George as the headquarters, and when British India was formed, Fort Saint George became the Headquarters of the Madras Presidency.

Trading was done at Madras coast from the beginning of the 17th century itself, and it was an open sea port. Madras harbor was opened in 1862. After the opening of the harbor, trade increased at Madras several fold, and vessels reaching Madras after sunset were facing difficulties in anchoring safely. The vessels approaching the port had to face the threats from the Pulicat and Coovalam Shoals, and there were no reference points to fix their position after sunset. So Commanders of the vessels of the East India Company submitted a collective memorandum to the Madras Governor, requesting that a lighthouse on the summit of a tall structure inside Fort Saint George be erected. Even though they expected the light to be placed on the summit of the Saint Mary’s church inside the fort, due to the non co-operation of the church authorities, the Governor had to select another structure to erect the light. An octagonal wooden conical tower was erected on top of the two-story Exchange Committee Building, and a light at an elevation of 95 feet above sea level was exhibited on it from the 21st day of November, 1796. Twelve coconut oil wick lamps with glass reflectors on the back were used for illumination.

The lamps on the first Madras lighthouse were improved on several occasions, including the one in 1908 when a hurricane blew away the lamps and the lantern house. Argand lamps were introduced in 1813 and parabolic metal reflectors in 1828. The Commanders of ships calling at the Madras port were not satisfied with these modifications - they wanted a world class light to guide them.

In 1838, Captain John Thomas Smith, a lieutenant in the Military Engineers Corp, was then entrusted with the modernization work. Since the existing tower could not accommodate a better lighting apparatus, it was decided to erect a new tower outside Fort Saint George, near an esplanade.

It took more than five years to design and construct the 135-foot high granite-faced fluted column, and the new light was commissioned on the first day of January, 1844. The lighting apparatus was an oscillating one, designed by Captain Smith, to create a flashing light. The three lamp panels had 12 coconut oil wick lamps each for illumination, and silvered parabolic metal reflectors were placed behind these lamps for better efficiency. The lamp panels mounted on a circular platform were oscillated with the help of a clock-work mechanism procured from England. The lamps were converted to kerosene oil wick lamps designed by Sir Douglas and manufactured by M/s Chance Brothers of Birmingham in 1900.

The Supreme Court of Madras was constituted in 1817 to settle the judicial matters under the Madras Presidency, and the court was hearing the cases inside an old building in Fort Saint George. After forming of British India Government, the judicial systems changed, and on June 26, 1862, Queen Victoria granted letters of patent to establish three High Courts at the Presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras under the Supreme Court of India at New Delhi.

The Madras Presidency decided to construct a new building for the High Court in the esplanade after demolishing some existing commercial buildings, and the site selected was just behind the lighthouse. The new High Court building was designed by consulting Architect of Government Mr. J.W. Brassington. Construction of Hindu Saracenic styled building with several domes commenced in October of 1888, and the new court complex was opened on July 12, 1892.

While designing and constructing the High Court building, there was no proposal to erect a lighthouse on its summit. After the construction of the new High Court building, mariners were finding it difficult to identify the lighthouse tower from the sea because the High Court building came right behind the lighthouse and the main tower of the High Court building was much taller than the lighthouse tower. Due to complaints from the Commanders of ships, in 1895 it was decided to shift the lighthouse to the main tower of the High Court building.

The main tower of the High Court has three stages above the two-story court halls. The first stage is rectangular shaped and has stairwells on all four corners. Out of these four wells, granite stone spiral staircases are built in only two of them. The second stage is octagonal and has oriels on all sides, and from the second stage, two sets of cast iron staircases, a spiral one and a straight one, will take one to the third stage, which is round in shape. Even though the other stages have large windows, this final stage has only lancets in the window level and Catherine wheels on the top. The dome is formed with interlocking granite blocks, and there are eight ventilating holes on it. Since there was no proposal to transfer the light to the top of High Court building at the time of its construction, no provision was kept to erect a lantern on it.

When it was decided to place the light to the top of the main dome, the dome was cut open by removing several stones, and a spiral staircase was provided to enter the lantern room erected over the dome. The 2.5 meter round metallic lantern room has 2.1meter high murete plates with a 1.2 meter glazed portion. The 360 degree glazing is done using 20 triangular-shaped curved glasses. The copper cupola, a huge one matching the shape of the domes of the building, was gold plated considering the importance of the lighthouse to the Madras Presidency.

The lighthouse with its gilded dome attracted the public, and when the number of people thronging to visit the lighthouse increased day by day, it was decided to allow the public after the payment of a prescribed fee. Even though the fee charged was hefty when compared to the spending capacity of the people, lighthouse keepers found it difficult to control the crowds. Climbing the tower through narrow stairs was not easy, and it gave an extra burden to the light keepers, as they were responsible for the safety of visitors inside the tower. On request from the light keepers, the Presidency Port Officer notified the Government of the difficulties, and permission was obtained to restrict the entry of visitors to lighthouse. From August of 1895, visitors were allowed into the lighthouse, but only after the production of a pass from the Presidency Port Officer. To obtain the pass, a written application was to be submitted to the Principle Port Officer, and while doing so, the unknown persons were to produce some references to prove their identity. Soldiers from the Garrison had to take their superior’s counter signature on the application. Application by letter had to accompany a one Anna postage stamp for reply.

Over time, the dome lost its glitter due to the elements, and there were no efforts to gold-plate it again. When the government decided to paint all lighthouse domes with an orange color for identification from long distances, the gilded dome of Madras lighthouse was not exempted. On 10th January of 1977, the new lighthouse tower at Marina beach was commissioned, and the High Court tower was closed once and for all; but the lantern room and dome, which were once the center of public attraction, are still preserved.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 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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