Contrary to its name, False Point, the British era lighthouse standing tall on the Odisha coast in Kendrapara district, has actually been guiding ships and vessels through the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal for the past 180 years.
The oldest functional lighthouse in India, False Point has remained a familiar symbol for seafarers who would know its location at a distance of 40 km from the flashing of two white lights every 20 seconds — its navigational code after dark.
During the day, the 129-foot-tall, massive minaret-like structure of red-white bands with a huge embossed star on the side facing the sea was visible for a considerable distance.
“I had heard a lot about this station, but what attracted me the most was that it was the oldest working lighthouse in India,” said I.C.R. Prasad, a former electrical engineer and a passionate lighthouse researcher.
In an era before GPS and other navigational devices, lighthouses used to be proud structures. Despite the march of communication and satellite technology, False Point, which is under the direct supervision of the Director General of Lighthouses and Lightships (DGLL) under the Ministry of Shipping, has not outlived its utility.
“When someone meets with an accident at sea and all modern navigational apparatuses are lost, there is no other way than going back to the basics. That’s why advanced countries like the United States are still continuing with lighthouses,” said Mr. Prasad.
Mistaken for Kolkata
According to legends, there were uncanny similarities between the mouths of river Hooghly in West Bengal and the Mahanadi in Odisha. Ships proceeding to the colonial hub of Calcutta often mistook Hukitola in the Mahanadi for Palmirah Port, which was actually 1 degree farther north, at the mouth of the Hooghly. “That mistake made the authorities decide that the befitting name for this place and its lighthouse would be False Point and not Hukitola,” Mr. Prasad explained.
The British administration had then spent the huge sum of ₹36,528 for erecting the lighthouse over 11 months — between December 1836 and October 1837.
Commissioned in March 1838, the tower first flashed lights via an imported lantern room with brass reflectors. “The light was a fixed one and the illuminant was a coconut oil wick lamp,” said Mr. Prasad.
According to the researcher, since the light was insufficient to warn mariners sailing at a distance from the shore, blue lights were beamed and maroon lights were fired from the tower once every four hours.
The light system was repaired around 1879 and converted into an occulting light in 1884. After 47 years, in 1931, the six-wick capillary lamp was replaced with a petroleum vapour lamp. Subsequently, an incandescent lamp with a vertical filament was used for better illumination. Now, a metal halide lamp is used to flash lights every 20 seconds, with a proposal to upgrade it to an LED lamp.
“A notable feature of the lighthouse is the cluster of graves close by. The British workers, who had lived in isolation, worked in inhospitable conditions and died, were given a burial on the premises of False Point. The cemetery, with 11 vertical graves and a horizontal one, is still being maintained by us,” said Jayanta Chatterjee, present head light keeper of False Point.
The perils of working and maintaining the lighthouse can be gauged by the fact that even today one has to navigate thick mangrove vegetation and sail past crocidile-infested waters to reach the lighthouse from the sea.
Stating that False Point continues to guide local fishermen, who regularly venture into the deep sea for fishing, Mr. Chatterjee said, “We cannot afford a breakdown of the light system even on a single day.”
Authorities at the DGLL are now toying with the idea of converting False Point, with its rich history, into an ecotourism spot. “As per our pilot project, a lighthouse near Konark is being renovated to attract tourists. Depending on its success, False Point could get a new identity,” said Amitash Ray, Assistant Engineer at DGLL, Noida.