For a very long time, lighthouses were the only means by which a ship could find direction to the port. Even today, despite advances in technology, they continue to play an important part in navigation.

India has 7517 km of coastline, which has played a crucial role in our country's history. Remember how the Portuguese and the British arrived in India by ship? The rest, as they say, is history. Until the invention and the viability of aeroplanes for commercial purposes, trading with foreign countries and ports within India remained largely by sea. Even today over 90 per cent of India's international trade in terms of volume is by sea. Now that's a large number of ships afloat on the sea at any given point in time.

Unlike on roads, signboards don't show the way home, but those curiously tall and stripey buildings called lighthouses that are always by the sea do. Aided by other navigational tools of course, but “nothing works best like a visual confirmation”, says Mr. I.C.R. Prasad, Assistant Engineer, and a lighthouse enthusiast. He adds that though GPS systems are the best, it has been found that those signals can be jammed causing a difference of up to 40 kms in readings.

Each lighthouse is either constructed or painted differently to enable identification by just looking at it. For instance, when you want to dock in Chennai you should be able to spot a tall, triangular-structured lighthouse with alternate white and red bands. But if you spot a black and white cubical structure then you have probably drifted off to Vishakapatnam. This type of identification is only possibly during the day. By night sailors use the light intervals from the lighthouse to identify the ports.

Apart from lighthouses, there are also lightships set up in places where a structure cannot be constructed. In India there is only one such lightship in Kutch. They serve the same purpose as a lighthouse except that the light is mounted on a floating vessel.

If you thought that the lighthouse was just another pretty structure by the beach, think again. Pay a visit to a nearby lighthouse near you and learn more, because they deserve better recognition of the work they have been doing in guiding ships and men to safety since time immemorial.

Brief run-through

Starting with burning wood or coal up on high towers or hills to show the way to ships to using Differential Global Positioning System and Racons, lighthouses too, along with the ships, have upgraded

Gas lanterns, and burners later, the latest in Lighthouse technology is the low watt metal alloyed halogen lamps. These lamps are powerful enough to match the 3000 watt-incandescent bulbs that were used earlier. The 3000 watt-incandescent bulbs are still in use in some lighthouses. A Racon (Radar beacon) that enables electronic communication between the lighthouse and the ship is a new addition the lighthouses.

Facts

The oldest and the first ever lighthouse believed to be constructed is the one at the Port of Alexandria built during the third century BC by Ptolemy II of Egypt.

The earliest reference to a lighthouse structure in India can be found in the Tamil classic Silappadigaram where it describes a beautiful lighthouse that was built on the coast near Kaveripattinam to locate the then port of Poompuhar.

The oldest functioning lighthouse in India is at False Point, off Paradeep Port in Orissa. It was commissioned in 1838.

The lighthouses come under the authority of the Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships, which is a subordinate office under the Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways.

The Indian coastline has been divided into seven Districts having their regional headquarters at Jamanagar, Mumbai, Kochi, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Kolkata and Port Blair.

For the love of lighthouses

Mr. I.C.R.Prasad whose love for lighthouses has led him to travel extensively and research on lighthouses — talks of the Americans' love for the structures. “The Americans are the best lighthouse lovers. It is their belief that the lighthouses are the ones that gave their forefathers guidance towards the land that they were to settle in. A majority of the American population is made up of settlers. And hence this belief is held on by the successors of these settlers who hold the lighthouse close to their hearts. They take their children to show them. Such love and attachment for these structures has led many to form what they call the Lighthouse Lovers clubs or associations. They even volunteer to maintain and upkeep abandoned lighthouses.”

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Madhumitha SrinivasanJune 28, 2012