The lighthouses of Sri Lanka were built during British rule. They were operated and maintained by the Imperial Lighthouse Service, while some lighthouses had keepers sent from Trinity House. Following independence in 1948, the operation of lighthouses was taken over by the Navy on a piecemeal basis with the completion of transfer in 1976. There are twenty five lighthouses in Sri Lanka, with sixteen of them still active. The original lighthouse used fire from an elevated platform such as that in Urumalai, near Talaimannar. Although many lighthouses have been made redundant by modern electronic navigational aids and radio beacons, they have become popular tourist attractions.
At the early stage in the establishment of lamp-powered lighthouses, they were built in the main ports, first at Trincomalee (1845) in the east, then Galle (1848) followed by Colombo (1860) on the west coast. Originally they were part of fortifications.
There are many lighthouses in Sri Lanka, but a few are known for their unique location, given the fact that they have been built off-shore on rock outcrops and islands in the sea. And, moreover in their unusual locations, these secluded and lonely structures make a beautiful yet melancholy sight of solitude. Therein rests the beauty of these sentinels.
Here are some of the popular lighthouses that span over a century of existence.
The First Colombo lighthouse was built in 1860. It was supposedly mounted on a church tower, which was moved in 1867 to the clock tower in Fort, Colombo. It was demolished to make way for expansion of the nearby fort. An interesting neoclassical structure, the 40.2m tower rises from a circular stone building and is surrounded by an elaborate colonnade.
The Barberyn Island lighthouse in Beruwala was built in 1890. This active lighthouse is built on an island near Beruwala, about 55 km south of Colombo. It is accessible only by boat and is open to visitors.
The Galle lighthouse was built in 1848, later destroyed by fire in 1936 and rebuilt in 1939. It is an active lighthouse located on the south bastion of the ancient Galle Fort that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and a well-known tourist attraction. It also happens to be the country’s most photographed lighthouse. Although the site is open to visitors, the tower
is not accessible.
The Dondra Head lighthouse built in 1890 stands on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. It is the tallest lighthouse in the country, located on the point, near Dondra town, six kilometres southeast of Matara.
The Round Island at Koddiyar Bay was built in 1863. This towering white structure is built atop a small island in Trincomalee Bay, in the outer harbour. The Round Island lighthouse is important because it signifies the use of lights not only to point to hazards, but as leading lights at the entrance to ports. This lighthouse is accessible only by boat, however it is closed to the public.
The Great Basses is an active lighthouse built in 1873. The structure is built on a hard sand stone rock rising six feet above mean sea level.
It is located about 11.5 km offshore and 20 km east of Kirinda Oya.
The Little Basses like its counterpart is also an active lighthouse built in 1878. The Little Basses lighthouse is located on a reef known as Kuda Ravana Kotuwa (Fort of Little Ravana). Little Basses is a line of reefs off the southeast coast. The lighthouse that sits on the reef can be seen from the beach on a clear day.