The glowing tale of Chennai’s lighthouses

The first lighthouse came up in 1796 on the roof of what is now the Fort Museum. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

Obscured today by the glitter of city lights, Chennai’s lighthouses were for decades its defining landmarks. The first lighthouse was proposed in 1795 — the year in which a census of the city was taken.

Since then, the city’s population has grown from around 3 lakh to more than 80 lakh even as the technology in the lighthouses has evolved from oil wicks and argand lamps to a 3000-watt incandescent lamp. Come August 15, residents of the city will have an opportunity to get a taste of this history when the lighthouse at the Marina will be thrown open to the public.

In 1795, the Madras Presidency encompassed much of south India and also Ceylon. As its capital, Madras was the nerve centre of the sea trade controlled by the British East India Company. However, ships approaching Madras after nightfall faced the risk of running aground on the shoals of Covelong(Kovalam). In the north, the sand-banks of Armagon and Pulicat were a menace.

In February that year, maritime officials petitioned the government to build a lighthouse in Fort St. George that would serve as a navigational aid and allow vessels to enter the open anchorage at all times. The government approved the request and the steeple of St. Mary’s Church was considered as the site for the new lighthouse. However, the proposal did not materialise due to opposition from the chaplains.

The first lighthouse instead came up on the roof of the Exchange Building (present day Fort Museum) in 1796. Situated at 99 feet above sea level, the beam emanating from the 12 lamps fuelled by coconut oil swept the choppy waters of the sea as far as 25 miles from the shore. Merchants on the ship would exchange signals with the lighthouse and the transactions would later be conducted in the Public Exchange Hall downstairs, a lively meeting point for brokers, merchants and ships’ commanders. This lighthouse functioned until 1841 when the British government erected a 120-ft Doric column in the High Court compound as a replacement that used argand lamps.

But the colonial government soon decided to build a taller lighthouse. In 1894, Madras’s third lighthouse was established as part of the new High Court building, 175-ft above sea level.

It burnt kerosene to produce light equal in intensity to that emitted by 18,000 candles. It is no wonder then that this lighthouse reportedly attracted the attention of a German warship during the World War I. It is said that the lighthouse was the main target of SMS Emden that bombed the High Court campus on September 22, 1914. The bombing became part of folklore. A ballad in Tamil, published by Vijayapuram Sabhapati Pillai in 1914, goes:

“To damage Fort and Light house too

Hurl they did some bombs


No damage, ha, no damage”

In the 70’s, the Lighthouse Department sought a site opposite the university buildings to construct a new lighthouse. However, the state government rejected this request and the new lighthouse was instead built at the southern end of Marina, “now seen sticking out like a sore thumb,” in the words of chronicler S. Muthiah.

This lighthouse began functioning in 1977 and was open to the public until the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi following which it was shut down over fears that it would be the target of an attack.

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 9:58:36 AM |

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