CHENNAI: Kodikkarai Light House. Reached at 9.00 pm. Next day, a great day awaits. First rays of sunlight and beautiful clouds at 6am. Early morning ‘suprabadam’ by a peacock which sits on a nearby dilapidated lighthouse. Later, I see at least ten of them... freely roaming inside the lighthouse compound...”
This excerpt from the Facebook Timeline of 77-year-old Hemchandra Rao is just the tip of the iceberg – his hobby has taken him on a 11,000 km journey to 121 lighthouses, a journey that he plans to continue and document every used and unused lighthouse dotting the Indian coastline. The first thing you see when you enter Rao’s house is a map of India with brightly coloured pins tacked all over the coastline, starting from West Bengal to Goa. These are the lighthouses he has visited, from an unused lighthouse in Coringa, a tiny coastal village in Andhra Pradesh to the pilgrim spot, Ganga Sagar Island in West Bengal.
“I aim to visit all the lighthouses in India,” says the gentleman, still full of life and busy documenting his travels and updating his Facebook Timeline with pictures and descriptions of each trip. The ‘lighthouse bug’ bit this retired engineer after he had exhausted his research on subjects including bridges, ships and the Buckingham Canal, with daily trips to the Tamil Nadu Archives for years. “After I visited the four lighthouses in Chennai, it was saturation point. So I decided why not go beyond Tamil Nadu?”
The journey so far: four trips, seven states, 60 days and a treasure trove of information. Rao travels with a driver and does not use GPS. “I bought a device but was not sure how to use it”, he admits. They navigate by asking people at every junction and following road signs. He makes journal entries, stays at the inspection quarters and takes photographs. Usually he travels alone with a driver; sometimes he is accompanied by his journalist friend Vincent D’souza, another heritage enthusiast.
The places he has covered so far can be divided into four journeys: Pulicat to West Bengal in 31 days, Colechal to Tuticorin in five days, Vizhinjam (Kerala) to Goa in 16 days, and Mahabalipuram to Keelakarai in six days. Rattling out names of places that would sound unusual even to frequent travelers — Kulpi, Leepuram, Poto Novo and Manakodam, Rao recalls, “I saw Coringa on my way to Kakinada and stopped. It was a very curious name that drew me to it. The journey to the lighthouse was amazing, through virgin canals and mangrove forests. The lighthouse was beautiful, but it had been abandoned,” he rues. Another lighthouse he stumbled across by chance was at the island of Sao Jacento in Goa, a spot undiscovered by most tourists. “One thread is enough to pull an old string — this is how you discover places, by chance conversations,” he says.
His journey has also led him to unexpectedly discover benchmarks from the Great Trigonometric Survey, the British survey that began in 1802 to measure the subcontinent. At Santhapalli, Pamban, and recently in Keelakarai, he found inscriptions indicating that these points were marked in the survey. “I could not contain my happiness when I found these,” he smiles.
Another discovery in Keelakarai was an old Chola lighthouse from 1,000 AD, now barely two feet high after years of degradation by natural forces. “As far as I know, there’s no catalogue on lighthouses except by the Directorate of Lighthouses and Lightships. This catalogue has technical details, but it may not reach out to a layman,” he says. “If you want to visit a lighthouse, you’d have no idea how to.” Rao’s aim, he says, is to spread more information on lighthouses and urge youngsters to explore their country. “I am not interested in foreign travel; there is so much to explore and unravel in India!”