Lighthouses in Sri Lanka

09th February 2021
  • Attractions
  • Lighthouses
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  • Things to do in Sri Lanka
Steuart Holidays Blog

Lighthouses have been the guiding light for many a sailor through centuries of voyages and adventures in the endless expanses of the vast blue ocean. Sri Lanka, then Taprobane and later named Ceylon, was remarked as an island with great importance in naval routes since the beginning of the maritime explorations. Its central location, presence of natural harbours and its significant positioning in the Silk Route, captured the attention of earliest explorers. With the development of navigation technologies, the importance of lighthouses has reduced over time. Nevertheless, lighthouses still play a remarkable role in marine navigation. Today, lighthouses in Sri Lanka are amongst the most visited and photographed sites in Sri Lanka. Lighthouses serve as standing reminders of Sri Lanka’s central involvement in the maritime explorations.

The first lighthouse recorded in history is Egypt’s Pharaohs of Alexandria. Built around 280 B.C., it was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World and at 450 feet (137 m) it was one of the tallest man-made structures in the ancient world, second only to the Pyramids of Giza. Pharaohs of Alexandria stood for over 1600 years, and today, its Greek name ‘Pharaohs’ is used in the architectural genre to represent any tower with a light designed to guide mariners.

A lighthouse is a ‘fully or partially enclosed built structure bearing a light that is used as a navigational aid, and that is capable of admitting at least one person to operate or maintain the light entirely from within’. Structures that were once lighthouses, but are no longer lit are known as historic lighthouses. The tallest lighthouse in the modern world is the lighthouse of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia built in 1990, which stands at a staggering 436 feet (133 m).

Galle Lighthouse

alt Galle Lighthouse, Galle Dutch Fort
Galle Lighthouse

After colonizing Sri Lanka in 1835, the English set about in further fortification of the Galle Dutch Fort – a smaller structure initially built by the Dutch. Consequently, in 1848, the British built the Galle Lighthouse inside the Galle Fort, as Sri Lanka’s first lighthouse. It was a 24.4-metre-high (80 ft) iron lighthouse, constructed from cast-iron plates, imported from England, designed by British architect Alexander Gordon. After this initial lighthouse was destroyed by a fire in 1936, ‘Point De Galle’ the current lighthouse was built in 1939. It is a 26.5 m round cast iron tower with a lantern and a gallery and is located on the south Bastion of the ancient Galle Fort that is part of a UNESCO world heritage site. It is currently the most photographed lighthouse in Sri Lanka.

According to the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society, today, there are 25 lighthouses in Sri Lanka. Out those, there are 14 active lighthouses. Most of these lighthouses are under the control of Ports Authority while the others are under the control of the Sri Lanka Navy.

Old Colombo Lighthouse

Old Colombo Lighthouse
Old Colombo Lighthouse
Photo credits:Kasun Ranatunga (@kasun.ranathunga_)

The Colombo Lighthouse was built in 1860 and was initially mounted on a church tower. After several years, it was moved to the clock tower in Fort. Today, it is known as Old Colombo Lighthouse or Colombo Fort Clock Tower as it was both a clock tower and a lighthouse. Even though this lighthouse is no longer active, the tower remains and functions as a clock tower. It is located at the junction of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha (formerly Queens Road) in Colombo Fort.

Colombo Lighthouse

Colombo Lighthouse, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo Lighthouse
Photo credits:Lahiru Abeygunawardana (@lahiru_randeepa)

First Colombo Light, the Colombo Lighthouse currently in use, is located at Galbokka Point south of the Port of Colombo on the waterfront along the Marine Drive, in Colombo Fort and has been developed into an interesting neoclassical structure – 40.2 m light tower rising from a circular stone building and surrounded by an elaborate colonnade.

There are 4 international lighthouses in Sri Lanka. Those are Beruwala (Barberyn Island) Lighthouse, Dondra Head Lighthouse, Little Basses Reef Lighthouse and Great Basses Reef Lighthouse.

Great Basses Reef Lighthouse and Little Basses Reef Lighthouse

View of the Great Basses Reef Lighthouse, Sri Lanka
Great Basses Reef Lighthouse
Photo credits:Samanmalie (@fleeting_glances)

The Great Basses Reef Lighthouse and the Little Basses Reef Lighthouse were established in 1873 and 1878 respectively. Both the structures were designed by Alexander Gordon and James M. Douglass and were built by William Douglass. Both the lighthouses are 37 m high round granite towers with a lantern and a double gallery each. Great Basses is painted white while the Little Basses is painted white with a black horizontal band. The Great Basses Lighthouse is placed on a hard sand stone rock rising 6 feet above mean sea level and is located about 11.5 km offshore and 20 km east of Kirinda Oya. The Little Basses Lighthouse is located on a reef called Kuda Ravana Kotuwa (Fort of Little Ravana) and was renamed by the British. Little Basses (derived from the Portuguese word ‘baxos’, meaning shoals) is a line of reefs off the southeast coast off Yala Block II. The lighthouse that sits on the reef is 11.5 km from Kumbukkan Oya and can be seen from the beach on a clear day.

Beruwala Lighthouse

Beruwala Lighthouse, another international lighthouse in Sri Lanka, was established in 1890. It is a 34m round granite tower with a lantern and a gallery and is painted white. It is located in the Barberyn Island near Beruwala, about 55 km south of Colombo and is accessible by boat.

Dondra Lighthouse

Dondra Lighthouse, Matara
Dondra Lighthouse

The tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka is the Dondra Lighthouse which stands 49 m high on the southernmost tip of a rocky point near Dondra town, 6km southeast of Matara. It was established in 1890 and is an octagonal brick tower with a lantern (cupola) and a gallery and is painted white. The Dondra Head Lighthouse was also designed by James Douglass and was constructed by William Douglass.

Sri Lankan coastline is dotted with lighthouses – both active and historical. These colossal white structures add a colonial glamour to the horizon while being a beacon of light to the sailors navigating their way across the Indian Ocean. Batticaloa lighthouse, Colombo Southwest Breakwater lighthouse, Colombo Pilot Station Lighthouse, Kankesanture Lighthouse, Kevuliya / Round Island Lighthouse, Kovilan Point (Karaitivu Island) Lighthouse, Mannar Island / Talaimannar (New) Lighthouse and Oluvil Lighthouse are the other active lighthouses in Sri Lanka.

Lighthouses around the world have proved to be attractive destinations for all sorts of travellers as these magnificent structures symbolize hope, strength, safety and even individualism. However, Lighthouses of Sri Lanka – with their centuries old legends and deep insights into early maritime architecture and the British colonial architecture, are an imperative part of the history books and also for the present and future persistence of naval navigation.