Keepers of the Light
The last few manned lighthouses on the Indian coast, and how they beam lost ships home.
On fierce monsoon nights, about one and a quarter mile off the Mumbai harbour, there have been occasions when 52-year-old Bikaji Ramchandra Dhuri is the only man on sea. From the watchtower of the Prongs Reef Lighthouse, which is surrounded on all sides by the Arabian Sea, he has heard the sea rage like a possessed spirit — the darkness dispelled only by the beam of light flung across the waters from the tower he mans.
Dhuri is one of the last breed of lighthouse keepers on the Indian coast, as a majority of the 182 lighthouses in the country are now unmanned. Built in 1871, the Prongs Reef lighthouse was modelled on Scotland's Skerryvore Rocks Lighthouse, and is located at a strategic spot on the western coast, marking the entrance to the busy Mumbai Harbour. It was meant to stem the number of shipwrecks off the harbour, which the lone Colaba lighthouse could not illumine on its own. "Even now, during nights, for fishing vessels without any gadgets, it's the soft light from this tower which directs us to Mumbai," says Vinayak Koli, a boatsman who helps ferry people and also goes on fishing expeditions.
Through the year, Dhuri lives in the lighthouse for 15 days at a stretch, when he is relieved by another keeper. In the monsoon, it becomes his home for three months. "We call it the kalapani as we are alone in the middle of the sea for days, with basic supplies — and the revolving light that keeps the sea awake," he says.
On a typical day, he checks the solar panels that power the lighthouse's rotating beacon, works the batteries and ensures that the prisms that magnify the beacon light are safe. "Our work begins in the evening, immediately after the sun sets, when we part the curtains and switch on the light," he says. The first few seconds are magical as the light crosses and illuminates the seabed, he says.