Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2005


The Best-Maintained Lighthouse in Sri Lanka

By Preethi Burkholder


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Dondra Head Lighthouse
Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

Entering the Dondra Lighthouse premises is like approaching a pristine monastery. Coconut trees, Bougainvillea flowers and cooling grass surround the lighthouse area, as does the fresh breeze freely offered by the Indian Ocean. Stones painted in White line the path to the lighthouse and the keeper's quarters. The lighthouse compound would have been unbearably hot if not for the dedicated work done by the lighthouse keeper to leave it cool, shady, and a pleasant place to have a picnic.

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“My father was also a lighthouse keeper, and now ...
Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

When I visited Dondra Lighthouse in March 2004, what

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The author climbs the stairs at the Dondra ...
Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

mesmerized me about it was its serenity. The lighthouse area is completely removed from the hustle and bustle of human activities. It is a quiet place to contemplate, to escape from people, and to connect with the mighty ocean. The area surrounding the lighthouse is visually soothing.

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Dondra Head Lighthouse
Photo by: Preethi Burkholder

Dondra Lighthouse is located on the island of Sri Lanka,

formerly known as Ceylon. It is located six kilometers southeast of the town of Matara, Sri Lanka. From the capital of Colombo, which is located in the west coast, it is a six-hour drive to the lighthouse. If you are visiting Sri Lanka, Dondra is a lighthouse worth seeing.

The lighthouse keeper's name is Keerthi Weerarathna, a genial middle-aged Sri Lankan of forty-five. He has been dedicating himself to the maintenance of the lighthouse premises for the past twenty years. “My father was also a lighthouse keeper, and now I am following in his footsteps. I love taking care of Dondra,” he said with a large smile on his face. Keerthi's passion for his occupation was reflected in the way he took care of the lighthouse and his quarters. In my opinion, Dondra is the most well maintained lighthouse in Sri Lanka.

Dondra Lighthouse was built during the colonial period when the British ruled Ceylon from 1796-1948. The Dondra Lighthouse was originally designed in 1889 by James

Douglass and constructed by William Douglass of the Imperial Lighthouse Service. The significance of the lighthouse is that it marks the southern most extremity of the island. Next to the lighthouse is a little mound with a plaque showing the exact location of the southern tip of the island. Another important feature of Dondra is that it is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka. It is 150 feet tall and is octangular in shape.

The name Dondra is a synonym for “Devi-Nuwara” in the local Sinhala language. “Devi” in the local language means “Gods” and “Nuwara” means “city.” Dondra is therefore derived to mean “City of the Gods.”

The lighthouse is still actively in use. It helps guide ships along the Indian Ocean. Daily, a total number of approximately 250 ships at sea pass our lighthouse area. Most of them make use of the lighthouse signals for navigation. Dondra is actively used by sailors, fishermen, the Sri Lankan navy, commercial ship liners, and dive boat operations. It also transmits radio wave signals to surrounding lighthouses in Sri Lanka, Keerthi explained.

“How many times a day do you climb the lighthouse to operate the lights?” I asked Keerthi. “Too many times! I climb four times a day, two of which are to send radio signals to adjoining lighthouses and the other two to aid sailors and fishermen at sea. It is a strenuous exercise and keeps me in good shape,” he chuckled.

The exterior of the lighthouse is light yellow and there are 14 double-paned yellow windows that provide ventilation. Even though the stones inside are flat, the stones outside the lighthouse have embossed decoration. The bubbly stone-like effect adds beauty to the lighthouse. It offers a pretty facade. “We paint cracked walls, faded stairways, and other appliances once every two weeks,” Keerthi said. “How often is the exterior of the lighthouse painted?”

I asked him. “Once every five years. The last time we painted the lighthouse exterior in 2002.”

Typically Dondra Lighthouse gets an average number of 50 visitors daily, most of whom are schoolchildren. “People come here for various reasons,” Keerthi explained. “Primarily, schoolchildren come because it is part of their curriculum to visit the lighthouse and to understand its geographical significance. Tourists come to escape the hustle and bustle of the adjoining Matara town and to enjoy some stillness. Ocean lovers come to visit the lighthouse because the water surrounding it is ideal for snorkeling and diving. Therefore, Dondra plays a

larger role than merely standing as a

historical lighthouse.”

“Do you like having so many visitors daily?” I asked Keerthi. “Yes, I love it. It is nice to have the opportunity to share my lighthouse experiences with others. Visitors give me a reason to keep the lighthouse area beautiful and pristine,” he smiled. I, too, noticed that visitors kept the lighthouse area alive. The lighthouse area was flowing with positive energy. “I do not allow visitors to see the inside of the lighthouse because it can cause damage to the interior,” Keerthi explained to me. I was fortunate enough to be present on a day when there were no visitors. This gave the keeper the freedom to give me a tour of the inside. I was excited because seeing the inside of a lighthouse was a rare opportunity for me.

The interior was as beautiful as the exterior. It looked brand new. The interior had square-shaped stones. Each stone weighed two and a half tons. The metal floor was painted in orange. Next to the five-foot-tall door entrance were a sink and electrical control boards. At the ground level of the lighthouse there was a second back-up generator that was run by solar power, in case electricity went off.

The oval-shape staircase leaned closer to the lighthouse wall. The steps were painted in orange and the hand railings were black. After the first 46 steps I entered a flat area that led to an outside balcony. There were three more flat areas followed by balconies before I finally reached the observation deck where the light was located at the peak. There were a total of 196 steps to the windows and grills. The scarcity of oxygen was felt on the top-most floors. The bottom steps were oval shaped while the top steps were straight.

A square-shaped generator turned on the light at the top. A total of 40 lights made up the large, illuminating light that transmitted across the seas. Oval metal bars supported the electrical structure holding the forty lights. The large blinking light on top of the lighthouse went off every six seconds and it was yellow in color. The forty smaller lights that illuminated the peak were constantly rotating and were lit throughout the night. A sliding ladder that rotated at the top made it possible for Keerthi to adjust electrical malfunctions and loose knobs, paint the ceiling, and do other adjustments.

As I stood at the top with the light rotating around me, I felt the heat and stepped out to the balcony to get some fresh air. A small door with golden knob led to the outside balcony at the peak. I gazed at the magnificent view that stood below me. The view from the top was spectacular. Fishing boats made their way home, coconut trees waved to and fro, and the clear blue sea met the

endless sky.

Sri Lanka Ports Authority maintains Dondra Lighthouse. Donations are used to paint the lighthouse, defray electricity costs, clean the garden space surrounding the area, and general maintenance work. The lighthouse keeper’s bungalow stands next to the tall structure. It is a relatively new building and overlooks the ocean. Much of the credit for the maintenance of the lighthouse compound and the keeper’s bungalow goes to Keerthi Weerarathna, who will continue to hold the keeper’s post for many years to come.

Author's Bio: Preethi Burkholder is a Sri Lankan who has been living in the United States since 1993. She travels to Sri Lanka every year and documents the few remaining lighthouses on the island. Visitors interested in learning more about lighthouses of Sri Lanka or participating in a lighthouse tour of the island may contact Preethi by phone at (970) 544-1731 e mail: preethiburkholder@hotmail.com or write to her at 417H, Airport Business Center, Aspen, CO 81611, USA.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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