Shelters at gem mine, Ratnapura (1973)Gem mining in Sri Lanka. Lovingly nicknamed by the Arabs as ‘Jazirat Kakut’ and by the locals as ‘Ratna Deepa’, Sri Lanka is well known for its priceless gem mining industry. Nature has blessed the island of Sri Lanka with a great variety of Gem minerals that are rare and of extremely high quality, proudly finding its way into many royal crowns and thrones throughout the world. Staying true to its name, around 50 varieties of gems are found in the highest concentration within the island’s 25,000 square miles. These precious and rare stones of abundance and first-class quality have gained fame internationally for their beauty. Embedded in the blessed gem fields of Sri Lanka were Cat’s Eyes, Alexandrites, Blue Sapphire, Star stones and rubies, each uniquely found in marshes, river beds, foot of hills or fields have been perfected in the bosom of Mother Nature for many years.

Ranked with some of the most prestigious gem mining nations of the world like Brazil, South Africa, Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lanka’s story of gems date back as old as civilization. Legends and myths are highly associated with history of Sri Lanka’s gems and constitute to a huge portion of the traditional and religious beliefs of the Sri Lankans. These gems are pricelessly treasured in the relic chambers of the Buddhist stupas found in Sri Lanka.

Gem Mining Process

Gem-Rough-300x148Gem stone mining is executed in a collaborative basis. The costs of labor and profits from the sale of gems are equally shared among a number of miners that form a group known as Karuhavula. The main members of the group are the investors and the miners. The role of the investor is to finance the entire operation, whereas the role of the miner is to decide on a suitable site and keep excavating until they reach a gem bearing layer known as illama. The depth of the illama can be judged by the miner inserting a steel rod into the soil until it reaches the layer below the illama known as the malava. At certain instances, another layer of illama is found beneath the malava. The head of the mine, the mine owner, oversees various authorized actions and requirements. The running and organization of a mine site requires certain specific skills and quite a few years of experience in the gem industry. Majority of gem miners were previously miners and are usually in their middle ages.

There are two types of common mining methods. They are,

Method one: Pitting

Gem-Pit-inside-300x199Most commonly used in marshy terrains and paddy fields, pitting shafts are constructed to reach levels from 10 to 12 feet of pay gravel. The walls of these tunnels are constructed with timber that are resistant to rot and fern growth and is made to gather the pay gravel situated near the base. However, the main issue with pitting is flooding which is prevented by current day miners by making use of water pumps.



Method two: Riverbed mining

wsb_223x148_gems+mining+riverThis method of gem mining is used to extract gems found in the gravel of riverbeds and is executed by making use of suction pumps. However, the uncontrolled aspect of this method is harmful for the riverbed as the stability of the river bank is diminished by the removal of gravel.

Mining Methods extraction

The mining methods utilized in Sri Lanka are tailored specifically for the terrain of the island and when compared with the methods of other gem mining countries seem to be simple and old-fashioned. However, they are efficient, don’t pose a huge threat and effective for the purpose. Apart from that, the initial capital investment of the mining is usually low allowing a higher rate of involvement of poor rural dwellers. The Sri Lankan government has passed rules that ban the use of any mechanized mining because it not only is a form of depletion of the priceless natural resources, but is also the cause of many rural dwellers depending solely on farming as a means of income.

Deep Gem Pit

Pits are usually excavated by making use of manual labor. The first stage of the process is for the miners to get rid of the layer of soil, gravel or sand that does not contain any gems. This layer is excavated and meticulously sorted through to fill in the pit later on. In a shallow pit, the miners will stand and different layers and pass baskets of the material by hand. However, a deep pit calls for the usage of a pulley system. Sometimes, the illama is dug out making use of the same method. Whereas, in certain instances, a tunnel called a donava is formed because the illama was excavated horizontally. These tunnels usually range between 6 or 9 meters from the shaft.

A makeshift shed is made over the gem pit to shield the miners from the sun. Boards and logs are utilized to bolster the walls of the pit. While timber is normally utilized for this reason, as costs keep increasing for materials, a few mineworkers make use of other options, for example, steel plates.

Gem pits now and again experience the ill effects of gathered water when the pit is burrowed and accordingly mines are outfitted with pumps to uproot this water.

Time taken to mine is typically controlled by the measure of illama found. Mining can extend from a few days to two or three years.

Washing stage


After the contents of the basket, known as Nambuwa is properly washed, the basket and its contents are examined for the presence of gemstones. The basket is kept at an angle that allows sunlight to fall on the contents. The value of a stone is determined by the examiner by taking a look at its color, shape, transparency or form. Then its passed on to many others who are well experienced to be examined. This is a crucial stage in the mining process.

ratnapura-1vdxqy8-300x194As time passed, new mining routines were found which did not hamper the development of harvests and the farmlands stayed untouched. With cutting edge innovation a vertical shaft was projected until it came to the illama. Feeder passages were constructed and were upheld by timbers of wood and bamboo. The mineworkers burrowed the passages and stacked their rucksacks with the valuable gravel as they make their way toward the surface. Pumps work full-time to keep the passages water free. The procedure of washing, screening and sorting are carried out on the surface, once the miner has ascended.

River Dredging

The gemstones disintegrate from mineral rich rocks and in the long run get washed down the streams. Discovering the right spot in the stream is the dubious bit as sturdy currents clear away even the heaviest gemstones and moderate waters means filtering through a ton of undesirable gravel.

River-drag-02The easiest form of mine working is river dredging which is built based on the misuse of stream gravels and illama uncovered during erosion and down cutting by the river or stream. In certain occasions, miners build dams to assist them in trapping and separating the gemstones before any sieving is done. If dredging was to be described in an easily comprehensible form, it involves the raking up of river gravel using a ‘mammoty’, a rake-like iron tool, and allowing the river to wash away the finer particles. The unwashed rough particles are then examined by the miners to extract the gem minerals. Miniature dams, riffles and other types of barriers are utilized on the riverbed to regulate the current and switch its direction towards the riverbank or the buildup of debris to help in winnowing the fine sediment particles allowing for the easy excavation of gem minerals.

An artificial structure, known as the gravel bar, transform the flow of the river significantly. The after effect of this transformation is the destruction of river banks and a serious effect on water supply. At instances when the river is very deep, traditional dredging methods cannot be used, so the sediment at the bottom of the riverbed is dredged into heavy baskets and dragged across the river using ropes. This basket is then examined in the riverbank. River dredging is executed legally and illegally. If close attention is not paid to control the process, it poses a huge risk to the environment and the health and safety of the miners. The gravels of the river are taken up by utilizing a hoe, which is then washed in-situ. Undesirable constituents are cast-off along with fine-particle mud.

Mine Workers

workersA larger percentage of gem mining in Sri Lanka is implemented by the native inhabitants of Sri Lanka. On the whole, this locally male dominant occupation is a labor intensive industry that forms a normal part in the cycle of activities within the local community when the yield from paddy fields and agricultural processes are low. The number of employees working under an owner is entirely dependent on the type of process executed. Around 5 to 6 people are employed for shallow mines, 7 for river dredging and about 8 or 12 people in deep mines. The average overall number of employees ranges in between 11 to 16, and is determined by the number of mines owned. A large percentage of owners had worked in the field for around 6 years and a minority going up to roughly 30 years of experience in the industry. Many owners engaged in mining as it proved to be a profitable business; starting off as miners and investing their earnings into owning a mine of their own.

This physically demanding field of work is fit for the males of Sri Lanka covering a vast range of ages from 18 to 50, evenly. Children below the age of 18 are not accepted to work in the mining industry. A verbal agreement is made between the miners and the mine owner. Thee mine owner is usually a local who is well known. Three quarter of miners join the industry because of not having an alternative employment option or because they possess special skills favorable for the mining industry. Only a tiny proportion of miners enter the field with the expectation of extraordinary profits. Miners usually be a part of the industry for many years, the mainstream being around 11 to 20 years.

In the course of a year, eighty percent of miners are employed for 7 to 10 months in the deep mines that are more labor intensive. All mines employ two well experienced miners with a vast knowledge of the processes as foremen. These foremen are responsible for assigning duties to other miners and instructing them. Apart from their weekly wage, miners are provided with food during working hours. Apart from that, the miners are entitled to roughly 3% of the income obtained by the mine. However, all miners conveyed that the wage is insufficient to cover their basic needs. Being considered a shareholder, miners are not supposed to be paid with wages by working a few hours. At certain occasions, miners work from dawn till dusk and sometimes even at night, to be able to complete the allocated schedule. Additionally, they are not given the privilege of holidays as miners have to continuously work once a mine is opened. If a sick leave is required by a miner, he has to send a substitute to work on behalf of him.

Miners working in rivers are more destitute than those working in pits as the findings are scant. The labor is long, tough and tedious and the wage is insufficient to feed the many mouths of the miner’s family.

Customs and Astrological aspect in Gem Mining

Up to this date, offerings conciliating the gods and astrology are still practiced before initiating mining as it is apparent that mining is dependent on good luck. Prior to commencement of mining, miners perform the traditional customs by igniting an oil lamp placed within a decorated box or young coconut leaves in the mine site. An astrologer then predicts the auspicious date and time for the initiation of the work. Many religious ceremonies are observed, some varying in different parts of the country because of it being dedicated to the patron deity of the region. In Ratnapura, a location abundant with gems, offerings are presented to the deity Saman. Offerings are also presented to Bahiravaya, the guardian angel or sprit responsible for the treasures buried under the earth.

Gem miners in Sri Lanka need to possess the qualities of a fortune seeker as mining is a grueling task with no guarantee of success. Most of the time, miners are guided by the light of a candle when working deep in the earth They may come across a rough blue stone, buried in earth and covered in mud or end up being more bankrupt than when they started out.

History of Gem mining in Sri Lanka

For over 2500 years the Sri Lankan gem mining industry has proven to be successful. This is mainly because of the unique customary mining methods and it being the oldest form of collaborative labor in the country.

blue-sapphires-of-sri-lanka-6According to geographical accounts, gems were discovered in Sri Lanka during 500 B.C. In this period, Buddhists from north India were travelling to Sri Lanka and came across the precious gems while bathing in the rivers and streams of the island. The corrosion of the rocks gave rise to extended deposits loaded with precious gems in the riverbeds of streams located in valleys at a lower altitude. These attractive gems adorned their frequently worn accessories like rings, bracelets and armlets. These stones were then traded throughout their travels in different parts of Asia and Europe. That is how the gems of Sri Lanka came to be known in different parts of the world. It was anciently known as Taprobane, which means copper colored in Greek. The indigenous Veddahs noticed colored rocks splayed across the sandy bottoms of the river they used to bathe in. This was before the Buddhist monks began adorning crude jewelry with these stones. Ancient Chines and Greek historians mentioned about the attractive gems of Ceylon which were used repeatedly by King Solomon to woo the Queen of Sheba. The term ‘mani’ jewel originated from the Sinhala and Sanskrit words- manikya or menik. The Ratnapura basin, which is situated in Ratnapura, the city of gems, is famous throughout history for its precious stones. Ratnapura has been considered as the area of gemstones since ancient times.

Various references to the precious gems of Sri Lanka are found in many historical records of the island. One of the records being of the “Buddhist Countries” (around 412 A.D.) by Fa-hsien, the Chinese Buddhist monk states “… there is a district of about 10 square li which produces the mani jewel. The king has posted guards here, and takes a levy of three tenths of the jewels that are found.”

Another record, “The Historic Tragedy of the Island Of Ceylon” (1685 A.D.) by Joao Ribeiro, a Portuguese Army Captain. His Description of Sri Lanka’s gems states “…Here are all the valleys and mountains that are full of them and are obtained with little trouble; such as rubies, the finest that can be found anywhere within our discoveries, all in separate crystals; sapphires, topazes (some of them of extraordinary size) cat’s eyes…garnets, beryl, jacinth, tourmalines and various others, which are held in no account there, since they are the stones with which the river beds are furnished”

Marco Polo’s recorded visit in the year 1292 states that, “I want you to understand that the Island of Ceylon is for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams comes rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst and garnet.” Apart from overpopulation and a faltering economy, not much has changed of Sri Lanka since Marco Polo’s time.

Basement Geology of Sri Lanka

Geographically, 90 percent of the Sri Lankan basement consists of highly metamorphosed Precambrian rocks. These Gem-Filedes-300x225rocks are different in composition and metamorphic grade. Pegmatite and mafic dykes are other magmatic rocks encountered in the Sri Lankan basement. Miocene limestone are found mostly in the north-western area and in a small are of the south-western coastline. Tiny isolated formations of sedimentary sandstone dating back to the Jurassic period are found in Tabbowa and Andigama. Ratnapura bed, Red earth, beach sand, coral reefs, alluvium and beach rock are regarded as Quaternary deposits owning to recent epochs and Pleistocene. Recent studies have divided the rocks found in Sri Lanka into three main lithotectonic categories based on lithology and metamorphic chronologic history.

Sri Lanka has a remarkable blend of geography and atmosphere, which has brought about the arrangement of an important non-renewable common assets in the form of precious and semi-precious stones. The gem deposits of Sri Lanka contain an extensive variety of jewels and semi-valuable minerals, a few of which are one of a kind to the island and some that are especially uncommon. It is likely that a significant number of the rarer, more important jewel minerals are not perceived by the gem miners and are disregarded while sorting. The predominant jewel mineral is corundum, in especially the considerable assortment of sapphires, rubies and geuda. Most of the gem deposits are secondary alluvial rock and contain a variety of gem minerals with varying varieties in relative plenitude.

The Gem Bearing Areas

Roughly a quarter percentage of the island is regarded to be gem rich. Approximately ninety percent of Ceylon is deposited with many varieties of rocks from the Precambrian age. The varieties are, the wanni complex, the Vijayan complex and the Highland South-western group.