Saturday, February 01, 2014

Chennai from the top of the lighthouse

Two months after opening the Madras Lighthouse to public I decided to go to have a view of the city from its top. The entry to the lighthouse was smooth. A small fee for entry to the lighthouse and its technical museum had to be paid and a ticket for the camera was issued.

Just after lunch time, there were only a few people in the queue to the elevator. Yes, you can go up only by the elevator and not through the stairs. We got off at the 8th floor and there is another floor to climb up. Closed with iron grills, the narrow corridor of the viewing gallery is said to accommodate 30 visitors conveniently. But with a little over 15, we had to squeeze in and we didn't mind it as the view from the top was breathtaking.

This  lighthouse, the fourth in city since the ships began travelling through Bay of Bengal has its older siblings in Fort St. George and Madras High Court.

In Feb. 1795, three commanders of Indianmen Captains W.T. Money, T.D. Foulkes and A.J. Applegarth proposed to the Government for a fixed lighthouse. They felt that the ships nearing Madras from the southward were to risk the shoals of Covelong and those from the northward had the dangers of sand-banks of Armagon and Pulicat. They proposed the steeple of St. Mary's Church in Fort St. George as the site for the lighthouse.

But the Chaplains quoted an engagement made in 1680 that the church should be put to no secular use that finally made the Government select the roof of the Exchange building (currently the Fort Museum) as the position for the light.

Henry Davidson Love in his 'Indian Records Series Vestiges of Old Madras' writes –
The lighthouse, which appears to have been a framed iron structure, carried a lantern, reflectors and twelve lamps burning cocoanut oil. It was completed by the end of 1796.

A note in the 'Madras Almanac for 1822' says, 'the Light is 90 feet above the level of the sea at high water; it can be seen from the decks of the Honorable Company's Ships about 17 miles, and from their mast-heads near 26 miles.' This lighthouse was in operation till 1841.

In 1834, when the necessity of a lighthouse with more advanced features was felt by vice-admiral Sir John Gore petitioned the East India Company.
Handbook of the Madras Presidency (1879), by John Murray Publishers records -
It stands on the Esplanade, close to the N.face of the Fort, and is 128ft, above the level of the sea. Its light, one of the most brilliant in the world, is a flashing one, the duration of the flash being to that of the dark interval as 2 to 3, and was first shown on the 1st of Jan. 1841. It is exhibited from the top of a Doric column of granite standing on a cubic pedestal 21 ft. high, also of granite, with massive steps, the shaft being 111 ft. high. The lantern consists of a 12-sided polygon, framed in gun-metal, with 9 glass and 3 blank faces. The interior diameter of the lantern is 9 ft and its height is 41/2 ft. The entrance is on the W. side. On the pedestal is inscribed 1838-44. There are 210 steps to the light including 3 on a short wooden ladder. There are 15 burners and 6 light-keepers... There is a fine view over Madras city from the top of this building.

Then comes the third light house.
After the 1886 cyclones, Madras Port was reconstructed. A port officer found a reef around the present Mamallapuram area and recommends for a taller lighthouse. The Government then shifted the lantern from the second tower to one of the tallest ornate towers of the Madras High Court building. This tower functioned till 1977.

The modern lighthouse in the present location diagonally opposite All India Radio. Originally, the lighthouse department proposed a site opposite the Madras University buildings, but was turned down by the Government. The present lighthouse functions from Jan. 1977 and serves a range of 28 nautical miles.
This was closed to the public after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister in 1991.

After 22 long years, the lighthouse is open to public again from Nov. 14, 2013.
It is worth spending time travelling to the tower and climbing up as well peep into the history of Madras lighthouses at the cute small museum in the ground floor.

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