Mahabalipuram Lighthouse

IALA Heritage Lighthouse of the Year 2020 Nominee

Location: INDIA - Tamilnadu. Chengalpet District.

Lighthouse Operator: Director General of Lighthouses and Lightships

Source: (photos as submitted to accompany nomination form submitted by Director General of Lighthouse and Lightships in 2020)

Lighthouse Description and History

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Director General of Lighthouse and Lightships in 2020)
Mahabalipuram is historic city and UNESCO world heritage site in Tamil Nadu. Lighthouse stands on a prominent position among the group of sanctuaries founded by the Pallavas in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Even before the erection of a lighthouse, the tall rocks on which temples are carved out, was a prominent day mark for navigation through Coromondal coast. Mariners called the pagoda shaped rocks on the seashore as Seven Pagodas. In early stages the lighthouse also was named as Seven Pagodas.

Speciality of rock carving at Mahabalipuram is the PanchRathas (Temples in the form of chariots) and Mandapas (cave sanctuaries) spread over 15 hectares of land, leaving giant open air reliefs. A lighthouse was first erected at Mahabalipuram atop the ancient Olakaneeswara temple. The temple roof was modified to accommodate a lantern.

When it was decided to build a new tower for lighthouse in 1900, Engineers built a stone tower exactly matching to the surroundings. Rocks of the same colour was cut and brought from a distance, without damaging any of the other structures, or defacing the natural rocks of the locality. Except a small oil room, no other buildings were erected near the tower, with an outlook to preserve the beauty of surroundings.

Residential buildings required for Light Keepers were erected to match with the surroundings. Two of these buildings are now converted as museums. The lighting apparatus with second order revolving optic is still working without any complaints and point towards the yeomen service rendered by Light keepers in maintaining the light intact.

Reason For Nomination

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Director General of Lighthouse and Lightships in 2020)
Intrinsic Heritage Interest of the Lighthouse

During ancient periods, safe navigation through Bay of Bengal coast was assured using temples as land marks. India has a rich maritime history and rulers of 5th to 15th century might have erected huge temple structures all along the coast with an intension to pass the light of wisdom in the mind of their citizens and to guide ships safely towards their ports as the ships brought prosperity to the country. Mariners called Puri temple built in 12th Century as black pagoda, Konark sun temple as Black Pagoda, and their appellation for Mahabalipuram rocks was Seven Pagodas.

At later stages lamps were placed on temple and church summits to mark the place during nights. But at Seven Pagodas, a temple structure was converted to accommodate a lighthouse. Light was erected at Mahabalipuram to warn ships about the presence of Tripasore reef off this coast. When Port officer first visited this place, deity inside the temple was missing and roof of the temple was damaged. Care was taken to protect the sculptures of the temple, while casting a roof on it to place the lantern house.

From day one of taking over this temple, all the historic structures around this temple were transferred to the custody of Head light keeper. Till the taking over of the site by Archaeological Survey of India, all heritage structures were looked after by Light keepers. This prevented the destruction of beautiful carvings by the hooligans, as new villages were forming around the place that was once deserted. In 1984, the site has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The old and new lighthouse stands side by side like sisters. Along with passing accolades at the elder sister’s beauty, visitors also stare her with scepticism that she is 1300 years old. Even though the light placed over the summit of temple was wick lamp, while gaping at her visitors always envision a high rising bonfire in place of her missing lantern. Elder people may find it tough to scale the 93 embedded rock stairs of 26 meters high tower, they usually open their mouths ajar, not to take long breaths; but with dismay. One can enjoy the beauty of entire Mahabalipuram heritage sites by taking 30 steps around the visitors’ gallery.


The state of preservation lighthouse and the efforts that have been taken to conserve it. This may include alternative uses.

Lighthouse which was under the Madras Port officer was transferred to the Department of lighthouses and Light ships under Government of Indian 1927. Till the handing over of the heritage structures to Archaeological Survey of India, Light keepers posted at this station had shown great care to keep the structures under them intact. No structural modifications were done to the lighthouse tower since its establishment. Light keepers posted at the station were aware of the historic importance of this place and they always kept the place neat and tidy. Old generation people still remember the beautiful rose garden planted by Head light keeper Mr. Barnabas around his residence, for it was the one and only place one could find a garden in this area then.

The clay particles of roofing tiles used for staff quarters were slowly falling apart and leakage through broken tiles was spoiling the wooden rafters and reapers. Recently extensive repairs were done to the roofs by changing complete roofing tiles with ceramic tiles without losing the rich heritage look of the buildings. Wooden panelling was given to interior walls and natural stone slabs took the place of cement flooring.

Public Access and Education

The efforts that have been made to facilitate public access to the lighthouse and/or to educate the public about the heritage of the nominated lighthouse as well as the wider context of aids to navigation.

Public are allowed to scale the lighthouse tower on all days except Mondays from morning till evening. Lighthouse is getting an average of 500 visitors on normal days and during weekends and holidays, it even crosses 1000 mark. For awareness of younger generation about the important role played by lighthouses for safe navigation through unknown territories, a lighthouse museum and a maritime heritage museum were commissioned at Mahabalipuram on 28thJanuary 2014. The theme of lighthouse museum is evolution of lighting apparatuses through centuries. We have exhibited old country lanterns, lamps, revolving and drum optics, clockwork mechanisms, etc in beautiful acrylic boxes with a narration of the exhibit in three languages. A separate section is included for evolution of lamps. Ordinary wick lamps to latest LED lamps are on display. The master exhibit is a first order drum optic used at Santapillay lighthouse during 19th century.

In the Maritime heritage museum, we have sailing ship replicas, Navy and Coast guard ship replicas, old sextants, compasses, telescopes, barometers, wooden pulleys, ships’ bell, different types of anchors etc. A ships’ deck with all 1st generation electronic navigational aids are recreated in a room. Trilingual Information boards are placed near all the exhibits.Apart from all these, a touch screen kiosk is provided to get further information on any of the exhibit in the museum. Kiosk provides information and photographs of all lighthouses in the Indian coastline. A big screen is connected in parallel to the kiosk for the convenience of group of students coming with teachers.

Visitors amenity centre and wash rooms are provided. For differently abled persons, ramps are provided to visit museums and wash rooms. We are not providing a lift to scale the lighthouse tower, only because we fear that it may damage the scenic beauty and heritage value of the lighthouse.