A Story of My Stones
I boarded the airplane the day after the Paris attacks and the evening of Gatwick’s lockdown following the discovery of a suspicious package. Traveling for the first time to Sri Lanka on my own was already providing extra drama to the adventure I was to embark upon. On arrival fourteen hours later I was re-routed from my booked hotel to another situated in the heart of the Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. Stuart and Janaka collected me after a restful night and a reviving coffee to battle through the heavy non-stop noisy traffic, carved up on all side by beeping tuk tuks. Two hours later we are in the beautiful countryside of Ellawalia, fresh and made vivid green by the prolonged rainy season. It seemed ironic that the vegetation of this country is of striking emerald greens considering all the colourful gems that lie await underground. As we drove along peaceful and quiet winding roads, in contrast to the bossiness of Colombo, a few mines had recently commenced excavating in patches of small fields either side of our track. The majority of the mines further afield were deemed waterlogged and not safe until dry weather resumed long enough for an excess water to be pumped out.
Local mines are dug by manual labourers by hand. Wooden huts, called a wadiya, are constructed first to house equipment and give gentle shelter to the miners from the short fire bursts of rainfall. The ground section is prepared and digging commences with age-old trusty tools such as picks and shovels, not too dissimilar to the ones seen in English potting sheds. As the miners progress downwards, wooden stilts are inserted around the circular dig to keep structure and pack the soil to the sides. As the mine develops deeper the stilts are used by miners to scamper up and down. To you and I this process looks a little provisional but to the miners it is a tradition of techniques coupled with skill and experience handed down through generations.
Once the miners reach the gravel layer they excavate sideways. The gravel will be extracted and brought to the land’s surface and on a stipulated ‘washing day’ it is thoroughly sifted for crystals using a garrum watti, circular dishes not dissimilar to gold pans. All mining in Sri Lanka is licenced and monitored by authorities. Mechanical diggers can be hired but at as much £3,000 for a deposit this is too costly for most miners.
No more than two diggers are allowed to be worked simultaneously due to the stringent environmental laws in place to maintain low impact and protect Sri-Lanka’s landscape delicate eco-system. It is enforced that no two mines may be in an excavation process at the same time and, therefore, each mine is completed and all trace is erased before embarking on the next excavation.
Changeable weather, especially during the rainy season of Autumn months, can last for many weeks, sometimes months, hindering the miners and delaying the mining, with a combined impact on their livelihood. We were lucky that the weather stayed mainly sunny and dry but the ground was still too waterlogged in some areas for all the mines to be recommenced.
Driving to Ehellyagoda, we visited Mashood and his family at his home. With typical Sri Lankan friendly hospitality and impeccable manners, Mashood offered us all a coconut to drink, bought with his hard-earned rupees from the stall outside. While we re-quenched our thirst with the sweet milk he examined and rolled the brown rough of tourmaline crystal between his forefinger and thumb, mulling over his forty-years of experience and trained eye before sitting down to his bench and trusty machine, also, I figure, a member of the family. He demonstrated the polishing machine and how the rough is shaped and smoothed. This is the first stage of the cutting process. It confirms the stone’s identity, estimates its possible yield and what cut would be most beneficial for the gemstone’s overall weight and beauty.