This story is born out of an idea I originally had for a book called “The Devil and the Deep Sea,” and as I wrote, I thought it worked better as a photo-essay. Where the pictures and text strive to create a sense of empathy for those lighthouse keepers, who have, through the ages braved isolation and death on that lonely Rock.
Being lengthy, I have divided this story into a 2-part series. So let the devil in that deep sea unfolds itself…
The lay of the land
There are places and things in this universe that inexplicably strange. When the strangeness gets out of control and cannot be understood we called it – the coincidences of our imagination. But there within lays the truth, disguised as fiction. And if you really want to seek-out this truth you will need to go away, maybe far out to sea, into the heart of a jungle or deep into the folds of a mountain. Places where man has little reason to go. And though these places are hard to find, they still exist. And when you find the imagined you will need to stay very still and watch, knowing it has lived longer than you and knows more than you, and know us better than ourselves.
A Dutch explorer, 300 years ago, wrote, “There is an archipelago consisting of large black rocks near the coast of Mingrela (Vengurla) about 9 miles west north west, the water there is deep and treacherous. For under the water, lie rocks that are barely visible. While the ones above, are large and have an excrescence upon their trunks, which gives them a semblance to prehistoric monsters, that lay crouched upon their backs. They seem restless as though their souls lay locked within and wait in anticipation, through the millennia, for the spell to be lifted. A local piratical tribe hides among them in skiffs, waiting to plunder the unwary. These environs are best avoided by setting course a further due west from the harbour”
From the first time I saw the Vengurla Rocks their mysterious aura fired my imagination. Some of them are large black boulders, bent over and full of muscle. While others are big enough to be islets, some are small enough to be just rocks, peeping out like jagged teeth from the deep. And yes, these rocks do give an impression of crouching animals. I have fished the locale for years, heard and read, some rather strange tales. And even free dived beneath, onto the shallow reefs that border the channels of deep water. Sometimes, coming a bit too close to their barnacle infested hides for comfort.
The Vengurla archipelago consists of about 20 largish rocks, and the smaller ones stretch up the coast to Malvan. The tallest island is about 180-200 feet and sports a lighthouse with a white fixed-light 110 feet high. Flashes from this light can be seen for about fifteen miles. All the rocks are quite bare and some are covered with clusters of a coarse tangled jointed grass. Being bare and devoid of water and vegetation, the Portuguese, called the Vengurla Rocks, Ilheos Queimados, or Burnt Islands. Before the ice ages, the geology suggests that these rocks were part of the coast, and stood like rocky headlands before the sea. Then those seas warmed up, the ice began the melt and the water rose, cutting them off and creating islands of their summits. Like icebergs there is a lot more below, than meets the eye.
Burnt Rock – The old Lighthouse
As you approach the islands from the East you will see a cryptic masonry structure upended on a bare rock, named Burnt Rock. This was the first lighthouse built by the British in 1800’s. Back in the day, the lighting apparatus that was to be installed, did not reach there on time, and it was then decided to burn a log fire as a source of light. And from the darkness came forth a large flame, a warning, to those on the horizon “Danger lies about”.
Imagine a dark moonless night on Burnt Rock, with a snarling flame burning above and below, cobalt black waters that were infested with huge shark, and barracuda equaling the size of men. An unsettling thought passes through lighthouse keepers’ mind that reads – ‘caught between the Devil and the Deep Sea’. The closest form of help is a treacherous two hours journey by boat. During the monsoons, he is locked down for 3 months (June, July and August) when the journey to the mainland and back is impossible. The sea then, boils with fury, and the waves rise to the size of small hills. There are eyewitness records of waves rising to 70 odd feet and more! Surging right over Burnt Island, submerging it completely. A few unfortunate souls, who had fallen ill there, have died from the lack of medical help.
Through the trials of time, this masonry derelict stands intact as a 100-year-old historical tribute to lighthouses all over the Konkan coast.
Vengurla Rock Lighthouse
The New Lighthouse stands apart on a larger rock called “Vengurla Rock”. This rock is much higher than Burnt Rock and this will hopefully keep the raging monsoon seas from washing over. The Vengurla Rock is pierced from side to side by a huge tunnel-like cave, and about, the middle of the island, owing to the falling in of the roof; a shaft has broken down into the cave. On a high tide the water rushes into these cervices and is then pushed up, spraying out from apertures at the side of the rock, like a geyser. This new lighthouse erected in 1931 by a John Oswald, who was, then the chief inspector of lighthouses. The Light Tower is entrenched on a granite base and sports a solitary coconut tree that has managed to take root among the stone. The towers precedents are surrounded by a few decayed structures. These were the homes built for the lightkeeper families, back in the early 1960’s. But, after a sequence of mysterious deaths and difficulties in providing timely medical help, families are now discouraged. The lightkeepers now stay in the bachelor’s quarters under the lighthouse, and do not stray far after dark.
Vengurla’s Bird Island
Towards landward side, and not to far from the lighthouse is another large rocky islet, called Bird Island. It gets its name from being a nesting site for birds, particularly the Bridled Tern and Indian Swifts that breeds of the rocks post the monsoon. This rock, beside being covered by tufts of resilient grass, gives an appearance of being whitewashed at its bare points; an effect of thousands of bird droppings.
About a decade ago there was a controversy about poachers scaling this rock to get at the Swifts nest. These nests are the prized ingredients that go into the making of the famous Chinese Bird Soup. After persistent pressure from birding enthusiast, an investigation was conducted. The authorities managed to bust a well-managed racket. Apprehending the culprits who came all the way from Kerala to pillage these nests, and then smuggle their booty out to the Far East. Finding markets right up to Japan. I remember that the National Geographic magazine had done a feature on this and also covered the Vengurla’s archipelago in a well-rounded article.
I have a peculiar fetish for lighthouses. Often built on a faraway rock or jagged headland, there is something unique about their stance that’s attractive. Like silent, ancient sentinels, they bear the testament of nature’s fury and flow. Some seem to be entrenched in kind of loneliness where time has lost its grip. Their clocks tuned only the rhythms of the sea, to its ebb and flow. Besides being maritime marvels of engineering, the function of a lighthouse runs beyond warning sailors of a potential danger. They serve as position beacons for sailors, and a few sophisticated enough to track ships within a 50 miles radius. To do all of this, a lighthouse varies its pattern of light flashes, so that each is unique to a particular locale. Some are even equipped with state-of-the-art radars. I have spent hours staring at these intermittent flashes, and, after a while they tend to synchronize with the beat of your pulse. Piercing through the poignant darkness these flashes are a welcoming sight for returning fishermen, who have spent days cruising the deep.
In the course of visiting these lighthouses, I have befriended a few of their keepers, and that has resulted in some interesting conversations. Often these tête-à-têtes were held on top, in the towers lantern-house, overlooking the vastness of the sea. From there the sheer immenseness of the landscape was overwhelming. Besides the natural beauty, the reward from these sojourns was an assemblage of rather strange and interesting of stories. Some were about big fish, while others were about strange happenings at sea. Freak tidal waves that have swept away the unwary, and daring smugglers that still operate in the dead of night. And some were nail-biting tales of ghouls from the deep that would make you renew your ebbing faith in God. Having given the readers a fair idea as to lie of the land, I will now relate events that have direct bearing on the mysterious relationship between this Rock and its lightkeepers. Where the dread of isolation, sickness, and death, is as plain a reality as the sea that surrounds it.
The keeper’s bride that never left the Rock
This happened a long time ago; back in the 1930’s, the lighthouse keeper’s newly wedded wife, by the name of Josephine Elizabeth Jacob, had come to stay on the rocks. She was pretty, and dainty, and was, extremely spirited for a 26-year-old. Leaving behind all her comforts and joys of her home in England, Josephine opted to stay on the Rock with her husband. She did this, knowing well that her husband’s professional pursuits of a lighthouse keeper will take them to some trying and desolate places. And the adventure in it sounded exciting, as it has always done so for the spirited young.
Before her arrival, Clifford ensured everything was as perfect as possible. The lighthouse being recently built was in mint condition, but the rock by its sheer isolation from the mainland had limited resources. Applying his final touches, Clifford looked out over the calm blue ocean and saw the dark clouds accumulate on the horizon. This omen clearly meant that the dreaded, 3-month monsoon lock-down was soon coming. The monsoon turns this sea turbid, and winds blow with such fury that most of the time there is a need to huddle indoors. Then, any journey between the mainland and rock is suicidal. Cliff pondered on how his wife, a young woman from a city, would deal with this drastic change of environs. Of course, he had disclosed the hardships of this venture as truthfully as possible and had even given her the option to stay back in London until the monsoon subsided. Josephine just shrugged it off. They were newly married and every day, and everything, and every moment was precious. The destiny of lovers isolated on a rock, day in and day out, was too romantic a proposition to pass upon.
The faithful day dawn, when Josephine and her husband took the boat trip across to the lighthouse. It was a warm summer morning with a clear sky and the sea was a liquid blue. In the transparent shallows, shoals of little fish darted around the pillars of the jetty. The boat cruised out to open sea and Josephine felt a sharp sense of freshness, like one feels after a long restful sleep. She could see the rocks in the distance and the excitement made her cheeks pink. Cliff was close beside and holding her hand, he looked positive. As they went along they waved cheerfully at the bunch of gulls that ambled about in the wake of the boat. It was all picture-perfect.
On reaching the island, a small welcoming party consisting of the few staff members showed the girl around. There wasn’t much to see on the bare rock, but the staff made a good show of the lighthouse apparatus, and its fine white-fixed light, 110 feet high. Cliff had put out a beach chair, the ones you could sunbathe on, and lunch was laid out on the porch over a checkered tablecloth. It all looked serene. The 360-degree view from the top with its immense blue seas looked liked a million dollars. A gentle wind made surf caps on the waves, and they rode like little white horses on the sea. Everything seemed almost vacation-like, this could be somewhere in the Mediterranean, and again it could be anywhere in the world.
The days passed on fair well. When Cliff was not working he took her fishing, and the snappers they caught made very good eating. In the evenings they sat on the porch with their tea and watched the sun set. The strong vivid hues of reds slowly faded to purple and then blue, and then they sipped wine, still sitting on their deck chairs, as everything faded to black. Moonlit nights on the Rock were magical; the dark waters shimmered with a nebulas glow. And conversations drifted to strange and interesting stories, some were about local pirates, who hid among these very rocks and plundered unsuspecting merchants en-route to Vengurla and Goa; then active seaports. When the dark clouds covered the moon, Josephine shivered at the thought of pirates. How this beautiful paradise could have witnessed so much violence. The first rains fell that night; the first drops tasted of salt and then gradually sweetened, heralding the start of the tropical monsoon.
As the monsoons progressed, the wind intensified into regular gales. Lightning ripped the skies open and thunder, which followed, shook the rocky foundations of the lighthouse. It was an awe-inspiring to watch these seasonal tropical furies unfold. At the times, the sea turned so furious that waves morphed into pyramidal watery giants. Rising up, with their pinnacles grasping out towards something unseen, and then collapsing back onto themselves. Grey was the colour, followed by deeper greys and then black, and the air was always filled with a salty spray. The mist from the surf enveloped and soaked everything. At times, the visibility got so poor that the keepers had to keep the light flashing, all through the day and night.
Josephine spent most of the afternoons and evenings up at the lantern room, staring out at the magnificent elements of nature out-doing themselves in strength and fury. The wind rattled up the solid glass windows of the lantern room while the rain lashed down with such force that no one dared venture outside. This, now, had become the way of life on the rock, and as June turned to July, the storms intensified. It was then, that this cloister phobic environment began to take a toll on the girl. It all started with mild evening fevers and she being a strong-hearted woman brush it off as a change of climate, and as the days passed by the fevers worsened. Cliff, with limited medical resources on the island tried everything possible to contain the fever, but the situation only deteriorated and the girl fell into a delirious state.
Sitting by her bedside, he knew that the only way to save Josephine’s life was to get her off the rock and to a hospital on the mainland. A task that was now impossible so they hoisted an SOS signal and shot off flares and waited anxiously for a calm day when a boat from the mainland could make the perilous journey, but there was never a calm day, and no one came. On that faithful morning, of July 20th, 1933, Josephine passed away, in the arms of her helpless husband.
The empathy for such grief is unfathomable. A new marriage, a new job and the new place, which had the promise of a new life; all lost, even before it had a chance to begin. And the grief on the rock was far from done. It was obvious that they could not take the girls corpse ashore for a decent burial, nor was it possible to cut a makeshift grave into the hard granite rock. The staff, not being able to dig a grave, pieced together a coffin out of wooden boarding planks and weighted it down with rocks.
In the evening, in the midst of a howling wind they said a short pray and lowered the body down into the sea. And the waves leaped out swallowing the coffin. Such was the suddenness of this act that Clifford couldn’t take it anymore. In a fit of hopelessness, he tried to jump off over the edge, but the staff anticipating this held him back firmly. While they pulled him back, he cried out to Josephine in desperation and it was louder than the wind, and the wind felt silent, and all witnessed this brief spell of stillness, as that grey evening faded to black.