Herathhamy, a 60-year-old hardworking man lives in a pastoral village close to Pelmadulla. As the morning sun peeps over the mesmerising mountain range of Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak, he starts his day’s work at the gem pit, close to his paddy field. No matter how scorching the sun’s rays, Herathhamy sweats it out in the field all day, and returns home in the evening absolutely exhausted. Herathhamy is just one of the hundreds of young and old miners who brave the blistering heat at the gem pits, every day.
Having resided in Ratnapura for more than two decades, I am no stranger to the city of gems and walked into the gem mining areas in Ratnapura to photograph them. In fact, gem mining is a strange industry and is always associated with religious events. Sometimes, one can acquire fabulous wealth instantly in this uncertain trade.
Throughout history, Sri Lanka has been known as a land of gems. King Soloman is said to have procured a beautiful ruby for the Queen of Sheba, from Ceylon. Of the many gem localities in Sri Lanka, Ratnapura, which literally means “City of Gems” provides the highest number of these dazzling stones. Ratnapura, Pelmadulla, Rakwana and Eheliyagoda form the main gem mining centres within the Ratnapura district. Those travelling from Pelmadulla and Avissawella on Route A4 would hardly miss the gem pits in the middle of the paddies and other fields just off the road. Miners may be approached at any time, to watch them work.
The local gem industry, centering around Ratnapura, boasts a variety of precious and semi-precious stones. Luck plays an important part in the gem trade. Though new excavation methods of gemming have been introduced recently, the industry still employs eco-friendly, old traditional methods.
However, luck and fortune depend on one’s own destiny. Sometimes, a miner may work in a pit for many months and find nothing of value, and then abandon it in despair. Another may try it, and in the first basket or two of earth, haul out the most valuable stone.
Besides rubies and sapphires, the ‘illama’ soil also bears cat’s eyes, alexandrite, aquamarine, tourmaline, topaz, garnets, amethyst, zircons and a variety of other stones. Most gems are mined from pits. A unique feature is that a variety of different gems may be found within the same pit.
For millennia, nature has washed minerals from their original mountain locations to the lowlands and valleys. This precious cargo of gems has been deposited in a coarse water-borne gravel called illam, which consists of ancient streams buried beneath a layer of alluvial clay. Alluvial deposits have made the district surrounding Ratnapura, the most important gem-bearing region in Sri Lanka.
To reach the gem-bearing illam, workers must dig through the surface alluvium. The pit, ranging in depth from a few feet to 30 or more, is excavated and its walls supported by a crisscross framework of stout logs. Long poles, pivoting on the scaffolding, act as windlasses to hoist the gravel out of the pit.
The illam is then placed in basket-like sieves which are swirled in water, in a rotating motion, so that the clay and lighter material are washed away. The remaining soil is then hand-picked.
Gemming is a cooperative enterprise in Sri Lanka and is not done individually. Each participant gets an appropriate share of any gem sold. There is the landowner, a person willing to finance a pit, and another pays the Government for the right to dig for gems, and obtain a permit. The Government maintains its own gem dealership through the Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri Lanka. As a public service, this agency tests any gem, regardless of where it was purchased, to verify its authenticity.
The men hired to dig out the illam must be trustworthy; unreliable persons have been known to swallow gems to hide them from other workers. Their trained eyes scan every basket of earth that comes out. Additional employees must stand waist-deep in the water to wash off the adhering clay, and one man operates the pump that keeps the water out of the pit. And of course, there is the gemmer or gemologist (mostly the owner of the pit), the man who recognizes which pebbles are true gems.
Gem mining being a complex trade, needs patience and involves massive expenses. It takes at least six months to finish work in a gem pit known as Dona Pathal (tunnel gem pits) which are more than 60 feet deep, and sunk wherever alluvial deposits are found. The other gem pits are called Goda Pathal (shallow gem pits), normally finished within a couple of days, and are about 20 feet under the earth.
The site of a Dona Pathal, which always lies in paddy-fields, is a hive of activity. Excavation goes on as pulleys creak ceaselessly and ropes work the shafts that carry the men deep down into the bowels of the Earth. Inside there are the caverns forking out in many directions in search of the infinite variety of gems that the Earth must someday yield to the insatiable demands of miners. But, Nature demands her own relentless price. Hundreds rummaging in the depths of the Earth have paid with their lives, some being buried alive.
The owner takes the ‘prize gems’ of the pit to a dealer, with whom he haggles over an acceptable price. In buying a stone, a dealer must decide the best way to ‘liberate’ a beautiful jewel, either by cutting or polishing. Both operations are traditionally carried out on primitive wheels coated with an abrasive paste. The polisher uses a horizontal wheel of brass or copper, while the cutter – if not replaced by a modern machine – employs a vertical wheel of lead. After ‘liberation’ the stone is ready to be sold unset, or to be set into jewellery by another craftsman.
Today, the Ratnapura town is a major hub of gem traders despite the sluggish progress of the industry. If you walk on the streets of the town, you will stumble upon hundreds of gem merchants examining gemstones in the so called open air gem market.
Until recently, in the town one could see a multitude of men seated cross legged on the low roofed verandahs of the shops, busy operating a disc attached to a wheel. This is turned backwards and forwards by a string wrapped around the drum. These are the experts who ‘cut’ the gems mined from the rich mud that go out into the markets of the world to bring fame and wealth to the country, all out of this rich mud.