Dreams Buried Deep: A Story Of Gem Mining

By Naveen Vaas

Contributor

It is a gloomy Sunday morning. From the Gorakala bus stop, a turn off the Ratnapura – Horana main road leads down a narrow road, muddy after the previous night’s heavy rain.

A quiet, uneventful walk of 2.5 km leads to a semi-forest area, with a paddy field to the right. Another 500 metres away is what we have come in search of: a gem mine. The owner agrees to let us photograph the mine and the mining process, and the workers comply.

There are different methods of gem mining here in Sri Lanka, and one of the common is the pitting mine, which is essentially a shaft going down into the earth, made up of several levels. It is at one of these mines that we find men willing to venture far down into the earth, risking their lives for rocks ‒ albeit very valuable ones.

In this mine there were six middle aged men working, three at the top and three below, engaged in digging. Their job is to keep digging until they find what they’re looking for: gem stones. This mine is close to one month old, and consists of 11 ‘floors’ (or levels) going down close to 20 feet deep. The day this photograph was taken, the miners were in the process of building the 12th floor. You can count the floors by the wooden logs on the sides of the wall. These wooden logs are the only things keeping the mine from collapsing on the miners.
Six men, none of them very young, work in this mine. Three stand at the top, while another three venture down below, and start digging. Their job is to keep digging until they find what they’re looking for: gemstones. This mine is close to a month old, and consists of 11 ‘floors’ (or levels) with a depth of close to 20 feet. The day this photograph was taken, the miners were in the process of building the 12th floor. You can count the floors by the wooden logs on the sides of the wall. These wooden logs are the only things keeping the mine from collapsing on the miners.

The six men working in this mine are determined to return home successful in their endeavours. Two of them say they are from the neighbouring district of Kegalle. They explain that there’s about a 25% chance finding gemstones in a mine. Next to the mine lies a pile of rocks, from atop which around three or four other mines can be spotted, left abandoned after being dug through in the hopes of finding gems. The dreams of these men, it appears, are buried very deep in the earth.

While the three men inside the pit keep digging into the earth, other workers above ground are busy engaged in another task involving this contraption, referred to as the “dahabare”, which is a kind of pulley, with a basket attached to the end. Two of the men standing by the side of the mine roll the dahabare down, and the miners inside the pit fill the basket with rocks, stones, and mud. The miners operating the dahabare roll it back up and throw the rocks and stones onto the pile that they have already made.
While the three men inside the pit keep digging into the earth, other workers above ground are busy engaged in another task involving this contraption, referred to as the “dahabare”, which is a kind of pulley, with a basket attached to the end. Two of the men standing by the side of the mine roll the dahabare down, and the miners inside the pit fill the basket with rocks, stones, and mud. The miners operating the dahabare roll it back up and throw the rocks and stones onto the pile that they have already made.

Climbing down into the mine is a treacherous process in itself, as we learn first hand in our attempts to capture these photographs. Thanks to the recent rains, the wooden logs that are meant to offer support were extra slippery. The deeper you go, the colder it gets. At the very end, water levels reach up to your knees.

One miner starts hitting the north side of the wall with his hammer, trying to make enough space to place the logs that secure each level of the shaft, while another miner hits through the south side of the wall. Yet another miner places leaves on the corners so the leaves absorb the moisture from the wall to prevent collapse.
One miner starts hitting the north side of the wall with his hammer, trying to make enough space to place the logs that secure each level of the shaft.
Another miner hits through the south side of the wall, while his colleague places leaves on the corners so the leaves absorb the moisture from the wall to prevent collapse.
Another miner hits through the south side of the wall, while his colleague places leaves on the corners to absorb the moisture from the wall to prevent collapse.

Different mines offer different types of payment methods to their labourers. In this case, the six men will only get paid according to how many gems the owner actually sells. If they don’t find any gems in this spot, they will be paid only for their labour, and the mine will be closed.

Although deep down the pits are dark, looking up one can see a bright light ‒ symbolic, perhaps, of the hopes the miners hold on to each time they make the journey into the earth.
Although deep down the pits are dark, looking up one can see the bright light of the world above ‒ symbolic, perhaps, of the hopes the miners hold on to each time they make the journey into the earth.

Normally it takes around 25 floors/levels to find an actual gem pit. This is a tough task, as it will take close to five or six months to dig that deep. And there will still be a 75% chance that the miners will not find any gems at all. On top of all that, these men are risking their lives every day, for there is no knowing if and when the walls could collapse. The miners are, however, for the most part, positive. “Sir, our lives may be at risk but our hopes aren’t,” one of them says.

“Our lives may be at risk, but our hopes aren’t.”
“Our lives may be at risk, but our hopes aren’t.”

At one point, a tense situation arises. The north side of the 10th level of the pit develops a leak, and water and mud start pouring into the mine. The men have to act swiftly to avoid a threat to their lives. The miners at the top quickly pull up the dahabare with the help of huge logs. They then place one log across the mine and one man climbs on the log and starts placing pieces of wood in that problem area while two of his colleagues assist him.

A leak in the wall calls for immediate damage control.
A leak in the wall calls for immediate damage control.
Getting down the leaves so that they can apply them to the walls to soak up the moisture.
Getting down the leaves so that they can apply them to the walls to soak up the moisture.
These men chop up pieces of wood that will be sent into the mine
Above ground, these men chop up pieces of wood that will be sent into the mine.

Once that is done, the miners work hard to secure the 12th level of the pit, cutting wood, dragging mud out of the mine, and placing leaves to absorb the moisture. Above, a huge rain cloud gathers in the sky and the wind picks up speed. The men have less than an hour to finish their work and exit the pit. They have been working non-stop all morning and afternoon.

Hard at work before the rains have a chance to interrupt.
Hard at work before the rains have a chance to interrupt.
After being cut down to the right size, the wood for the shaft is lowered down so the workers can finally complete the 12th level of the mine before calling it a day.
After being cut down to the right size, the wood for the shaft is lowered down so the workers can finally complete the 12th level of the mine before calling it a day.
After being cut down to the right size, the wood for the shaft is lowered down so they can finally complete the 12th level of the mine before calling it a day.
The final log is lowered into the mine.

Once the 12th level is finally secure, everyone climbs out. The head of the mining party grabs his lucky basket and arrives at the water hole that they constructed close to the mine. Two of his fellow miners go and pick up a basket full of mud-covered stones and put them with the leader’s basket. He washes them carefully, sifting through the rocks, on a lookout for the prized stones, searching for some good luck.

Who would have thought a basket of muddy stones would be the source of hope for a group of hardworking men?
Who would have thought a basket of muddy stones would be the source of hope for a group of hardworking men?
The stones are taken to a watering hole to be cleaned.
The stones are taken to a watering hole to be cleaned.
Gemstones are not easy to find. The team gathers around, all of them hopeful.
Gemstones are not easy to find. The team gathers around, all of them hopeful.

It’s been a long day, and the hunt for the gems isn’t over yet. Gemstones aren’t easy to find, but the miners remain hopeful. And if they don’t find what they’re looking for, they will return tomorrow, lower themselves into the heart of the earth, and keep searching.

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