Friday, January 06, 2006


Serendipity has to be one of my favourite words in the English language. Not only does it sound happy and cheerful, but its meaning pure luck in discovering things you were not looking for, is full of optimism. The word comes from an old Persian story about the 3 princes of Serendip. And Serendib happens to be the old Arab name for Sri Lanka, which meant "island of jewels". It's an apt name as because Sri Lanka is one of the largest exporters of sapphires as well as other semi-precious gems, and the small town of Ratnapura is at the heart of gem mining on the island.

One would, perhaps, expect jewel encrusted palaces and gold-plated Rolls Royces in a town of Ratnapura's reputation (or you would expect them if you had an overly fertile imagination), but it is in fact a rather dreary little town. The only indication of something being afoot is the high proportion of jeweller's shops. I was given a mini-tour of a workshop by a friendly and rather knowledgeable gem-dealer who, to my great surprise, didn't go for the hard sell and didn't seem to mind taking the time to explain various cutting, polishing and identification processes. A fact for which I was very grateful , not least because I learned a good deal about gems and their production. But the mining industry is the Big Thing in the area with with everyone and their cousin's pet poodle wanting in on the action. Actually, to call it an industry belies the very ad hoc nature of mining in Sri Lanka. There are literally thousands of mines dotted around the countryside and most of them are little more than deep holes in peoples' back gardens (especially down by the rivers). The process involves excavating copious quantities of mud, panning it to leave just the stones, and finally sifting through the stones to find a (semi-) precious one which, to the untrained eye (i.e. me) looks disappointingly unspectacular and very much like all the other stones. To give you a rough idea of quantities the miners found a couple of sub-carat stones (worth about 30 cents) from about 25kg of mud when I was there. Apparently that was a very good haul. All I can say is that they need something more than serendipity!

As a slight aside, I experienced one of the effects of the heightened conflict situation here during my last might in Colombo. I was sitting in my dorm at the Colombo YMCA (my first time in a YMCA), ready for bed in my boxers, chatting to a couple of long-term local residents, when all of a sudden the entire place was full of soldiers. The whole building was combed from top to toe, people were woken and bags searched. At least I must have given them something to talk about afterwards as I sat there in just my underwear as the sergeant (?) checked my papers.


Anonymous said...

Serendipity is one of our favorite words too, so in 1994, we founded We welcome visitors and contributions!

Ann Dixon

jonathan said...

it's still cold back in blighty dont you know