Dreams Buried Deep: A Story Of Gem Mining

It is a gloomy Sunday at around 11.30 in the 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 mines 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.

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 of successfully 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.

Climbing down into the mine is a treacherous process in itself, as we learnt 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.
As you can see soon as your buddy moves out you have to move in fast and place the leaves. So the leaves will soak up the moisture from the walls. Then small pieces of woods will come down through the dahabare which he will place against the walls with leaves.

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. Different mines offer different types of payment methods to their labours. 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.  

Light represents everything good, piece and also hope. Light guides us yes! Light guides these men as well. I can tell them from their faces each time these men look up to the sky from 20 feet down below they are full of hope. The hope of a better life for them for their families

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 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. However, the miners are, for the most part, positive. “Sir, our lives may be at risk but are hopes aren’t,” one of them says.

“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 to pour into the mine. The men have to act quickly 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. 

That speechless moment when the walls of the mine got a leak. This was one time experience for me but these men everyday face such scenarios. Life in a 20 feet deep and 5-6feet wide hole can be really exciting and jaw dropping at time. Well who would have known if it weren’t for this man’s courage I might not be writing this article as well. Thank you sir.
Everyone up and down worked really hard of stopping the leak which would have ended up in a major disaster. A real team effort and efficiency saved the day. And after 10 mins of excitement the miners kept on digging and arranging the floor. And others starting chopping and cutting the wood. Which will go to the floor.
Getting down the leaves so that they can apply them to the walls and soak up the moisture

Once that is done, the miners now work very 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.

Everyone was busy.. Everyone was smiling while working a very energetic vibe was going through out the mine. Well these men never get to go home until they find something or find nothing at all. Few meters away from the mine they have a small tent where they rest. And spend their nights. A “Wadiya” in Sinhala.
Logs are cut and loaded now only need to lure them down so they can finally complete the 12th floor the last floor of the day. It was around 12.30 when I visited here. Without knowing the time has passed and now the time was around 4.00.
The finals logs are also cut and and moved down to keep on the edges

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, with a keen eye watching for the prized stones. Searching for some good luck.

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.

With that the basket with muddy stones comes up, As their hopes too
Little by little he empties his basket finding for his and his teams buried dreams. Gems are pretty hard to find even in the city of gems now it is purely based on luck. Finally he cleans the stones and take the basket up to the owner of the mine
The team is gathered around the boss to see thee luck. Even I was looking at it finger crossed after all the hard work and effort the put into this. They should be rewarded right? Well sometimes the world doesn’t work that way. No gem was found that day I was genuinely sad as well.

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