Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2012

False Point Lighthouse

By ICR Prasad

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If you are packing your bags and map for a trip to India’s False Point Lighthouse on the Bay of Bengal, it is preferable that you wait until dusk; a moonless night would be even more appropriate. You soon find yourself in a wooden Pablo fitted with an inboard engine at the Attara bangi boat jetty, a part of the Port of Paradip. It is just the beginning of a one-and-a-half hour journey into the darkness amidst thickly growing mangroves.

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As the boat takes off from the jetty, slowly the lights from the Port of Paradip fade from sight, and then it is simply you, the river, the sky, and the stars. The expert boatmen guide your boat with ease through the narrow strips of water where the bordering shrubs and plants draw innumerable shapes in darker shades of black. You find yourself enjoying the sight of one of the thickest mangroves in India. The darkness around the mangroves, with their slender stems and intertwined roots extending into the water, and an occasional squeaking of Siberian migratory birds and the flapping sound of their huge wings in fear of your intruding into their territory, will remind you of the scenes in an old Hollywood treasure hunt film.

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Above your head will be a dark grey sky with countless stars twinkling at you. You look down to find a star shining in the palm of your hand and another on your hair. Do stars really fall to earth? You smile as you realize that it is a swarm of fireflies, and you see the lighthouse flashing at you from a distance, like a huge firefly. On the way to it, you pass several small fishing boats at anchor, and fishermen silently waiting in the darkness after setting their nets and hooks. Are you bored with silence? Your boatmen will entertain you with Odiya folk songs.

False Point Lighthouse is the first landfall lighthouse on the Bay of Bengal’s coast to mark the ever-moving sands of this area. The lighthouse is a mammoth one, 37 meters high, made with red granite blocks, and is the oldest working lighthouse in India. The lighthouse and adjoining buildings were built in 1838 with red granite stones quarried from the mountains of interior Odisha. It is like a small fort built to protect the staff from the man-eating tigers and other predators. The resident engineer for construction was Lieutenant Henry Righy, a British man who joined the public works department as Executive Engineer after leaving the Royal Indian Army.

The site selected for the lighthouse was, at the time, called Hookeytolla, believed to be named after a British person. Several ships which were headed to the Port of Calcutta mistook Hookeytolah for the Port of Palmirah, which lies 10 farther north in the mouth of the Hoogly River, and this caused the authorities to decide that the most appropriate name for this place and its lighthouse would be “False Point,” and not Hookeytolla.

The light was commissioned on March 1, 1838. It had a fixed light and the illuminant was a coconut oil wick lamp with a brass reflector. Since the light was insufficient to warn the mariners sailing at a distance from shore, blue lights were used and maroons were fired from the tower once every four hours.

A cornice was added to the tower in 1879 to accommodate the first order lens and lantern room that were supplied by Chance Brothers of Birmingham. England. The new light, a fixed one with a six wick capillary lamp as the illuminant in the renovated tower, was commissioned by the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, Sir Ashley Eden, in the presence of Mr. John Macmillan, Executive Engineer of Mahanadi Irrigation, Division of Public Works Department on February 1, 1880. The light was converted to an occulting one on September 1, 1884.

In place of the six wick capillary lamp, an 85mm petroleum vapor lamp supplied by M/s Chance Brothers of Birmingham was introduced, and revolving screens took the place of the occulting screens in March of 1931. False Point Lighthouse was electrified in 1958 with new equipment supplied by M/s B.B.T. France. It consisted of a 4th order revolving light with two panels placed at an angle 1350 apart in order to create a character of twin flashes every 20 seconds. The illuminant was a 1000W electrical incandescent lamp, and the rotation of the lens was done by a clockwork mechanism with rewinding motors. The electric light was commissioned on May 15, 1958. At present, the revolving lens installed in 1958 is still in service, but the illuminant is now a 400W Metal Halide lamp and the rotation of the lens is done with electronic pulse motors.

To help mariners identify False Point Lighthouse in the daytime, a huge star, facing the sea, was engraved on the body of the red granite tower. The practice of painting the star white started in the beginning of 20th century. The present color pattern of horizontal red and white bands was begun in 1966.

Until 1972, False Point Lighthouse had the honor of having the largest contingent of any lighthouse in India. The main reasons for keeping such a large contingent was the remoteness of the station, the maintaining of boats, the unavailability of skilled workers in the vicinity, and the large area of land available with the lighthouse. In 1875, False Point Lighthouse had 33 employees on its roll, including the Superintendent of the Lighthouse, but by 1960, the number was reduced to 23. Now False Point Lighthouse is automated and an Assistant Lightkeeper from nearby Paradip Lighthouse is assigned there on two weeks rotation duty as Attendant keeper. This station is also the first lighthouse in India to work on solar and wind energy.

If you are one of those ghost chasers, then this would be the place you are looking for. Lighthouse staff and their family members, who died in freak accidents and epidemics (like malaria) due to the inadequacy of medical aid, are buried in the cemetery adjacent to the lighthouse buildings, and several bodies were cremated in a spot north to the cemetery. The gravestones include those of Lighthouse Superintendant Mr. Bernard and his assistant Mr. Spooner, who lost their lives in a boat accident on May 24, 1862 while returning to the lighthouse after a private visit to a ship at anchor in the port. Maybe the souls strolling around this station for the last two centuries are waiting just for you in order to share their thousands of tales laced with smiles and tears.

The island is still not connected with a road to mainland, and the natives prefer to stay unconnected because they fear that the frequent visits of outsiders might spoil their unique culture.

The mangroves around False Point Lighthouse are well known among researchers for their bio-diversity, and they are home for a wide variety of flora and fauna, and the opportunity to see rare varieties of water birds and fresh water fish.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 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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