Dondra Lighthouse – දෙවුන්දර තුඩුව ප්රදීපාගාර
“From Point Pedro to Dondra Head” why is that expression so familiar to us? The fact that Point Pedro is at the most Northern tip and Dondra Head is the most Southern tip of Sri Lanka make them most exciting places to visit.
Dondra Head is at the Southern tip of Sri Lanka near the small town of Dondra or ‘Devundara’. The Galle Lighthouse and a Vihara are located in the area. There was a temple to Vishnu with a gilded copper roof, destroyed by the Portuguese but the place still attracts pilgrims today to the Dondra Fair and Perahera, held in the month of Esala (July-August). It might interest you that Dondra Head was once the capital of the country.
Dondra Head Lighthouse is a Lighthouse in Dondra, is operated and maintained by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. It was built in 1889 making it still the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka and was designed by Sir James Nicholas Douglass and constructed by William Douglass of the Imperial Lighthouse Service.
Dondra Head was also at the epicentre of a beneficial sea route. Possibly fuelling inspiration for the 1955 movie, Dondra Head was instrumental in bringing about ‘Soldiers of Fortune: Pearls off Dondra Head’ directed by John English starring John Russel, Chick Chandler, Nancy Gates, Howard Negley, Christopher Dark, Lawrence Dobkin, George Keymas and Dale Van Stickel. The story is about Tim and Toubo who, upon learning of a rich pearl bed from a dying man, they decide to try their luck at pearl diving.
The tower height of Dondra Head is 160m and the tower is a white octagonal brick tower and it is now used as an active aid to navigation.
Its characteristic is a white flash every 5 seconds of a range of 28 nautical miles with a height focal plane of 153m. who knwon as Devinuwara the ‘City of Gods’ in Sinhala was vital for several reasons. The immense historical, geographical and religious importance makes it one of the more discerning places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Though some of the ancient ruins one of its historical importance the Devalaya (temple) is the main monument of marvel.
According to folklore, the village of Devinuwara was a city respected by Buddhists for the power of gods. ‘Devinuwara’, in Sinhalese language means – ‘Devi’ or gods and ‘nuwara’ means city, which means ‘City of Gods’.
The city was founded around 660 AD when Buddhists and people from other religions also came from far flung parts of the country to pay homage at the place. During the annual festival season that takes place in June, many pilgrims come from far and wide to receive the blessings of the gods. The Basnayaka Nilame elected by the people from the district, manages this Devalaya which is under State control.
This light house lies on the main island at the Dondra Head and is not an offshore lighthouse. Number of sites have indicated this as a offshore lighthouse probably Wikipidia being the source.
Map of Dondra Head Lighthouse
The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites.
Zoom out the map to see more surrounding locations using the mouse scroll wheel or map controls.
Route from Colombo to Dondra Lighthouse
|Through : Southern Expressway – Galle – Matara|
Distance : 170 km
Travel time : 3 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
Dondra Head Lighthouse
My last visit was to Dondra lighthouse on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Dondra is located six kilometres southeast from the town of Matara.
“Dondra is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka, “Fernando explained as we drove along the narrow lane leading to it. Entering the Dondra lighthouse premises is like approaching a secluded monastery.
Coconut trees, Bougainvillea flowers and cooling grass surround the lighthouse area. The fresh breeze, freely offered by the Indian Ocean, cooled the heat. We walked along a sand path to the keeper’s quarters.
Keerthi Weerarathne is a genial character with many stories to tell. “I have been a keeper for more than 25 years. My father was also a keeper so I followed in his footsteps.” “What was it like to be lighthouse keeper 200 years ago, and what is it like today?” I asked.
“Most visitors forget that the keeper is the element that makes the lighthouse system work. Without a keeper, a lighthouse is a mere structure, standing at the edge of the sea. A keeper is like oxygen, fuelling the flames to make the tower come alive.”
Nowadays, lighthouse keepers are connected through radio, computers and telephones. However, it was different centuries ago. Keepers were usually stationed at isolated locations and sometimes risked their lives to save drowning sailors. For centuries, lighthouse keepers have symbolised stoicism, heroism, duty and faithfulness.
Before electricity was used to light the Statue of Liberty lighthouse in New York harbour in 1879, lighthouses were run using oil such as whale oil or lard oil. The job of the lighthouse keeper was to go up and down the steps several times during the night to maintain the light. If the lighthouse keeper failed in his job, ships could be wrecked.
Keepers earned the name ‘Wickie’ because one of their chores was to trim the burned lamp wick, so it would not smoke and dirty the lens. It was very important to keep both the lens and the lantern room windows clean so the light would not be diminished in any way.
Keepers also had to operate fog signals and fog bells during nights when the light was not visible. Sometimes canons were fired. Today, canons are archaic as an automatic sensor, which detects moisture in the air, turns on the fog signals when needed.
“The age of the Internet, radio beacons and GPS positioning are fulfilling roles once performed by keepers,” Weerarathne said with a sense of nostalgia.
“Did the tsunami come here?” I asked. “Yes. It was December 26, 2004. Around nine in the morning I noticed that the ocean around Dondra had receded about 100 metres. It was almost like the ocean had evaporated. I was able to see corals, rocks, and fish struggling to survive. I had never seen this happen in all my 22 years of being the keeper at DoSndra. Some locals walked in to catch fish by hand. We did not know that the reason for the water receding was a force 9.0 underwater earthquake.”
“Did you see the waves coming?” I asked, almost visualising the mighty waves that were about to hit the lighthouse area. “Yes. The first wave was not colossal. It came more forcefully than usual and crashed against the rocks. It was the second wave that brought water to the lighthouse area and also to my quarters. I was showing the lighthouse to some school children at the time. We all ran for our lives.
Fortunately, no one died from our little town.
We stayed on higher ground until the water receded. A few climbed the lighthouse for safety,” Weerarathne said, taking a pause to reflect upon those who were not as lucky.
The interior of Dondra is as magnificent as the exterior. There are 196 winding steps in a spiral staircase leading to the top. It was a special experience to be able to climb the stairs just as the keepers did and picture what life was like in times past.
The view from the top of the lighthouse was spectacular. Fishing boats made their way home, coconut trees waved to and fro and the clear blue sea met the endless sky. The most cherished scene for me was to enjoy the sunset from the top. It was a stunning spectacle. The keepers that I met at Beruwela, Galle and Dondra turned out to have some of the most colourful personalities that I had ever encountered in my life.
They were full of life, had many interesting stories to tell and loved what they did for a living. The lighthouse keepers captured the quintessential essence of the vast majority of Sri Lankans who live away from the spotlight. They all share a silent, but profound dedication to their country and take pride in what they do for a living.