Nestled among verdant hills at the southwestern corner of the hill country, RATNAPURA (literally “City of Gems”) is famous for its precious stones, which have been mined here in extraordinary quantities since antiquity. Naturally, the town makes a big deal of this, with plenty of touts offering trips to gem mines and stones for sale, though unless you have a specialist interest in gemology, this alone isn’t really a sufficient reason to visit the place. If you are interested in learning more, your guesthouse or touts in town may be able to arrange a visit to a working mine. Ratna Gems Halt also run a convenient trip combining a visit to a gem mine, gem museum and Saviya Street, and even run a ten-day gem-cutting course if the subject really grabs your imagination.
Ratnapura does have other attractions, however. The town makes a possible base for visits to Sinharaja and Uda Walawe national parks; trips to both involve a long (4hr+) return drive, making for a big day, but this does avoid the considerable bother of getting to Deniyaya, Kudawa or Embilipitiya. Several guesthouses in town can arrange trips: the going rate for a minivan or jeep is around $50–60 to Sinharaja and $60–70 to Uda Walawe – try Travellers Halt guesthouse or Ratna Gems Halt. Ratnapura is also the starting point for an alternative ascent of Adam’s Peak, though it’s significantly longer and tougher than the route up from Dalhousie. The path starts from the village of Palabaddale, from where it’s a climb of five to seven hours to the summit. Buses run to Palabaddale via Gilimale during the pilgrimage season.
Ratnapura also has the distinction of being one of the wettest places in Sri Lanka, with an annual rainfall sometimes exceeding four metres – and even when it’s not raining, the climate is usually humid and sticky.
Gems of Sri Lanka
Gems of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most important sources of precious stones, and its gems have long been famous – indeed one of the island’s early names was Ratnadipa, “Island of Gems”. According to legend, it was a Sri Lankan ruby which was given by King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba, while Marco Polo described a fabulous ruby – “about a palm in length and of the thickness of a man’s arm” – set in the spire of the Ruvenveliseya dagoba at Anuradhapura. The island also provided the “Blue Belle” sapphire which now adorns the crown of the British queen, while in 2003 a 478-carat Sri Lankan sapphire – larger than a hen’s egg – fetched $1.5m at auction.
Gems are actually found in many parts of Sri Lanka, but the Ratnapura district is the island’s richest source. The origin of these gems is the geological rubble eroded from the central highlands, which is washed down from the hills along the valleys which crisscross the area – a gravelly mixture of eroded rock, mineral deposits, precious stones and muddy alluvial deposits known as illam. Gem mining is still a low-tech, labour-intensive affair. Pits are dug down into riverbeds and among paddy fields, and piles of illam are fished out, which are then washed and sieved by experts who separate the precious stones from the mud. The mining and sorting is traditionally carried out by the Sinhalese, though gem cutters and dealers tend to be Muslim.
Types of gem
The most valuable precious stones found in Sri Lanka are corundums, a mineral family which includes sapphires and rubies. Sapphires range in colour from blue to as clear as a diamond. Sri Lankan rubies are “pink rubies” (also known as pink sapphires); the better-known red rubies are not found in the island. Garnets, popularly known as the “poor man’s ruby”, and ranging in colour from red to brown, are also found. Cat’s eyes (green to brown) and alexandrite (whose colour changes under different light) are the best known of the chrysoberyl group of stones. Tourmalines are sometimes passed off as the far more valuable cat’s eyes. Other common stones, found in varying hues, are quartz, spinel and zircon. The greyish moonstone (a type of feldspar) is a particular Sri Lankan speciality, though these are not mined in the Ratnapura area. Diamonds and emeralds are not found in Sri Lanka, though aquamarine (like emerald, a member of the beryl family) is.