Friday, March 16, 2012

Chronicles of Sri Lankan Moors

The Muslims of Sri Lanka have been an intrinsic part of Sri Lankan community since the advent of Islam and the exploration of Arab, Indian, Persian and other Muslim traders to the Island.  Sri Lanka has been known by many names, the island was called Serendib in Arabic which indicates seren (jewel) and dwip (island) showing the existence of the island has been known to Arabs since a long period of time. There have been Muslims in Sri Lanka for well over a thousand years.  Historical records indicate the Arab trading presence in the island’s costal belt even before the origin of Islam.  It was said the relationship in-between the Arab traders and the natives of the island were extremely cordial.

The Romans discovered the commercial value of Sri Lanka in the first century A.D. and the island was visited by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Chinese traders.  Some of the trading commodities of Sri Lanka at that time were cinnamon, precious stones, pearls, elephants and ivory.  The abatement of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century A.D had a periodic decline in the Roman trade and the Arabs and Persians filled up the vacuum; engaging in a rapidly flourishing inter-coastal trade.  After the triumph of Persia, Syria and Egypt, the Arabs controlled all the important ports and trading stations between East and West.  The Arabs from the Gulf had been coming straight to the island for trade and the significant migration for settlement came via the Malabar Coast in what is now Kerala.  This brings to our mind the stories of the legendary Sinbad.  The first Muslim merchants and sailors may have landed on Sri Lankan shores during the incipient era of Islam.

The first Mohammadians reached Ceylon were the members of the House of Hashim who fled in face of the persecution of the tyrannical Caliphs in the early part of the 8th century. The early Arab traders who visited Ceylon settled in the coastal belt of Ceylon concentrating mainly in the South Western towns of the country.  However the traces of Arab links with Ceylon were evident well before the chronicles were penned.  Sulaiman, an Arab trader and explorer, recounts his visit to Ceylon in 850 A.D. and mentioned a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak.  One cannot think of an Arabian, ignorant of the language of the indigenous inhabitants of a country, unlike its people in every respect in regard to habits, customs, diet and observances, undertaking a long and perilous journey into the heart of an unknown country.  This surely suggests that the Arabs had been in the country for some time and they were known to the inhabitants of Ceylon and wielded influence and were therefore permitted to travel far into the interior in safety and comfort.

Fifty years later, in the year 900 A.D. it’s narrated of another Arab, named Abou Zaid, who supports the stories of Cosmas and Sulaiman and describes the still flourishing port of Kalah (Galle).  Zaid’s narrations are based on the experiences of other travelers, one of whom was Ibn Wahab who included “Serendib” in his travels.  Wahab like his predecessors made careful observations and collected much information regarding ancient Lanka for he is able to tell us that the Maya Rata or “Pepper Country”, one of the three oldest divisions of Ceylon, was situated between Kalah (Galle) on the coast and the Ruhuna Rata in the South East.

The Moors settlement in the coastal belt of Ceylon concentrated mainly in the South Western towns of the country and it’s noted the first Muslim settlement was in a port settlement in western Sri Lanka which was named Berbereen (Beruwala) in honor of the Berber traveler who founded the city. And the second settlement was in an area called Alutgamaweedia which was subsequently named Dharga town in the 1940's by the Muslims of that town.  The grand mosque in Dharga town has archaeological evidence pointing to its historical origins.

The third settlement in the region was in Weligama a town further to the south of Berberyn.  This city was known by its Arab name as as-Salawat.  The biggest massacre of Muslims in the island by the Portuguese was committed here at Weligama where at least 10,000 Arab soldiers and their families were slaughtered mercilessly by the Portuguese who were renowned for their barbarity towards those who refused to convert to Christianity.  The family names of the current Muslims in the region affirm the early ancestry.

Habituated to the local conditions in various ways the Muslims contributed extensively with their talents, wealth, and assisted to the development and progress of the country in a peaceful and comfortable manner, integrating with the society & blending with the local environment.

By about the tenth century the Arab trading societies were well established in Sri Lanka, especially in the island’s coastal towns enjoying the favor of the rulers and maintaining cordial relations with the local inhabitants.  The Sinhalese in that era were not interested in trade and were appeased in agriculture and raising livestock.  Trade was thus wide open to the Muslims. The Sinhalese Kings considered the Muslim settlements favorably on account of the revenue that they brought them through their contacts overseas both in trade and in politics. History accounts, Up to the Fourteenth Century, the Sinhalese were not familiar with mass-scale spinning and weaving of cloth. Of course, there were the ancient hand-loom and distaff, but the production was insufficient to meet the requirements of the entire population. Accordingly, they had to depend on India for their clothing.  During this time the Sinhalese king delivered manifestos granting rewards to any individual who would go over to India and bring some skilled craftsman for the purpose of introducing the art of manufacture of cloth in Ceylon.  About this time, a Moorman of Beruwella, motivated by the tempting offers made the voyage across Palk’s Strait and brought with him a batch of eight weavers of the Salagama caste, from a place call Saliapatanam.

As the story continues the eight persons referred to were drugged and secured on board and that they only realized that were being transported to a foreign country when they had been many miles out at sea.  It is stated that two of the victims rather than being the subjects of such deception, jumped overboard and were never heard of again. The remaining weavers were granted a cordial welcome upon their arrival in Ceylon.  In due course they were presented to the King who treated them with every kindness in order to induce them to commence practicing their craft locally.  They were at the instance of the Court, married to women of distinction and given houses and lands.  A manufactory was established for them in the vicinity of the Royal Palace.

The courtesy and avail of the moors attracted themselves into royal favor.This acquired them a higher authority which they used to bestow their ability to the fullest within their territory along the sea coast.

There is also a report in the history of Sri Lanka of a Muslim Ruler, Vathimi Raja, who reigned at Kurunegala (North Central Province) in the 14th century.  This factor cannot be found in history books due to their omission, for reasons unknown, by modern authors.  Vathimi Raja was the son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, by a Muslim spouse, the daughter of one of the chiefs. The Sinhalese son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, Parakrama Bahu III, the real heir to the throne was crowned at Dambadeniya under the name of Pandita Parakrama Bahu III.  In order to be rid of his step brother, Vathimi Raja, he ordered that his eyes be gouged out.  It is held that the author of the Mahavansa (ancient history of Ceylon) had suppressed the recording of this disgraceful incident.  The British translator, Mudaliyar Wijesinghe states that original Ola (leaf script) was bodily removed from the writings and fiction inserted instead.  The blinded Vathimi Raja (Bhuvaneka Bahu II or Al-Konar, abbreviated from Al-Langar-Konar, meaning Chief of Lanka of Alakeshwara) was seen by the Arab traveler Ibn Batuta during his visit to the island in 1344.  His son named Parakrama Bahu II (Alakeshwara II) was also a Muslim. The lineage of Alakeshwara kings (of Muslim origin) ended in 1410.  Although all the kings during this reign may not have been Muslims, the absence of the prefix -Shri Sangha Bodhi- (pertaining to the disciples of the Buddha) to the name of these kings on the rock inscriptions during this hundred year period may be considered as an indicator that they were not Buddhists.  Further during Ibn Batutas visit a Muslim ruler called Jalasthi is reported to have been holding Colombo, maintaining his hold over the town with a garrison of about 500 Abyssinians. 

Colonial Sri Lanka

The influx of Portuguese in 1505 afflicted the Muslims (Moors) in their status from which they never again recovered, as the Portuguese regarded them as their adversary in trade and enemies in faith.  When the Portuguese first appeared on Sri Lankan shores, the Muslims warned the king, sangha, nobles and the people of the potential threat to the country's sovereignty.

The contest between these Portuguese and the Moors was an unequal one, as the Portuguese were trained and disciplined soldiers conversant with well equipped weapons & modern war methods unheard of by the peaceful and industrious Moor.  History records while the Portuguese tried to gain a foothold in Colombo, the Muslims even provided firearms, fought side by side with the Sinhalese and even used their influence with South Indian powers to get military assistance to the Sinhalese rulers.  The Portuguese expelled the Muslims from Colombo and forbade the worship of any other religion.  Installing themselves in Colombo; the Portuguese commenced a vigorous campaign of the Cross.  The Moors were subjected to every torture and humiliation.

The Moors made a huge effort to re-capture their fort, carrying on a powerful attack keeping the foreigners absent for a short time.  Following a fearless fight on the part of the Moors they were forced to own defeat owning to the superiority of arms and power the Portuguese possessed. Motivated by this success and fearing a consequent attack, Portuguese proceeded to erect a factory and rebuild the old, mud fort of the Moors.  The fort was entirely re-built with stone; both the Sinhalese and the Moors did everything that was possible to prevent the work being carried out but were brutally defeated.

Rajasinghe II, the king of Kandy desiring to get rid of the Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal area of the island made a treaty with the Dutch in 1638 who at that time had the largest merchant fleet in the world.. The main conditions of the treaty were that the Dutch should deliver the coastal areas they capture to the Kandyan king and the king should grant the Dutch a monopoly over trade on the whole island.  The agreement was breached by both parties, however the consequence came out was only the substitution of one colonial power to another.  By 1660 the Dutch controlled the whole island except the kingdom of Kandy and it was not until 1656 that Colombo fell.

It was during the Dutch period the Malays-who form a substantial element of the Muslim community, came to Ceylon.  Almost all of the early Malay immigrants were soldiers, posted by the Dutch colonial administration to Sri Lanka, who decided to settle on the island.  More immigrants added as the convicts or members of noble houses from Indonesia who were exiled to Sri Lanka and never left.  When the Dutch capitulated to the British, the Malay soldiers joined the British troops and settled in Ceylon.  Their separate identity has been preserved by the Malay language which includes numerous words absorbed from Sinhalese and the Moorish variant of the Tamil.

When the Dutch appeared and persecuted the Muslims in their coastal settlements, the Muslims ran to the Kandyan Kingdom.  Senerat and Rajasimha II settled these Muslims in the Eastern coast.  The Dutch who abolished the former as rulers of the sea-board were not prepared to give the Muslims even a small share of their commercial gains and therefore announced harsh regulations to keep them down.  A regulation was passed prohibiting the residence of Moors within the vicinity of the towns of Galle, Matara and Weligama.  This was at the time that Galle was the chief port of call for the island as well Matara and Weligama were also important trade centers.  Difficulties which this law enforced on the trade of the Moors were excessively afflicting them.  The Dutch tactfully ruined the business of their rivals wherever possible and during their 140-year rule, the Dutch, like the Portuguese, made repeated unsuccessful attempts to bring Kandy under their control.

The British ejected the Dutch in 1796, and in 1802 Sri Lanka became a crown colony.  In 1815 the British won control of Kandy.  The British did not follow the abhorring conversion policy carried out by the Portuguese towards the cross.  Nor were the British as rough as the Dutch in their financial exploitations.

Around 1804, the alliance between the Sinhalese King and the maritime government was so confined that an outbreak of hostilities was expected.  It was therefore considered unwise to regulate the payment of the head-tax and thereby antagonize the Moors who could be of service to the British in countless ways point out Lorna Dewaraja in her book.  As in India the Muslims became a powerful weapon in the hands of the British; an ally who could be used to their advantage to undermine the power and influence of the king of Kandy.  Governor Frederick North’s proclamation of 1799 preserving the laws applicable to the Muslims and the code of Mohammadian law effected in 1806, was an attempt to convince the Muslims of their separate identity.  Even the abolition of the poll tax on Muslims imposed by the Dutch, which governor North described as “an oppressive and disgraceful tax on an industrious race” was motivated not by purely humanitarian considerations.

It’s also stated that Ceylon Moors were for the first time appointed to native ranks.  One of the earliest of these was Hadjee of “Velassy” the distinguished, though little known Moor.  A more popular individual was Uduman Lebbe Marikar Sheik Abdul Cader, the grandfather of the late I.L.M.Abdul Azeez, who in his day was a prominent member of the Moorish Community.  “Sekady Marikar” by which name he was better known was appointed the head Moorman of Colombo by Sir Robert Brownigg, on June 10th, 1818.  Several other appointments followed soon afterwards and the Moors were not only made chiefs in different parts of the Maritime Provinces, but also assigned in the public service.

As mentioned in the preceding part the Muslims in the coastal settlements ran to the Kandyan Kingdom as the Dutch tortured them in all channels. Senerat (1604-1635) and Rajasimha II (1635-1687) settled these Muslims. Lorna Dewaraja states it is also possible that the Muslims who were trading in the kingdom from the seventeenth century, at least were already associated with the madige at the time the fisher folk were affiliated to it. The Sinhala king in his capacity as head of the economic and social order had the power to assign economic functions and grant lands if he thought fit to any group of people extraneous or indigenous and incorporate them in to the badda system.  In this process the fisher folks were absorbed into Sinhala society, but the Muslims were not thus acculturated because they clung tenaciously to their faith; but they functioned technically like a caste group. (Dewaraja. p 88)

In the reign of Keerthi Sri Rajasinha, Sheikh Alim, a Muslim was appointed madige badda (Transport department) nilame and after him his grandson, Sheikh Abdul Cader held the same office.  Later, Makula Mohandiram, a Muslim was madige disave of the seven korales. Since the madige department included both Sinhalese and Muslims, here we find an example of Muslims rising to high offices of authority over the Sinhalese through their association with the badda system.  Obviously, race and religion were no consequence when it came to appointments.

Although it is generally believed that the Muslims are versed only in the arts of trade and commerce it will be seen that there were other areas in which they excelled, one of which was medicine.  Certain Sri Lankan Muslim families had distinguished physicians among their members, who rose to pre-eminence in the profession.  In addition Muslims also functioned as weavers, tailors, barbers, and lapidarists.

A Muslim physician Suluttan Kuttiya, who was originally practicing medicine in Galle was invited to the Kandyan court, taken into royal service and given land near Gampola, where his descendants lived till 1874 and were known as Galle vederalala or the physician from Galle.  Although one cannot be sure about the numbers, it is reasonable to assume that there was a drift of Muslims to the interior in the eighteenth century as well.  They made the Kandyan kingdom their base and travelled up and down for purposes of trade when conditions were not unfavorable.  The first generation of immigrants married Kandyan women and their offspring who were invariably socialized as Muslims, either intermarried among themselves or married new immigrants of the same faith so that with each generation the Islamic identity was maintained and strengthened. (Dewaraja. p 97,p123).

Muslims as Functionaries in the Dalada Maligava or the temple of the tooth

The Muslims were involved in the functioning of the Dalada Maligava.  The Service Tenure Register of the Kandy district prepared in 1872 gives the names of several Muslims who were occupying service shares belonging to the maligava in return for service.

The Dalada Maligava owned extensive lands called maligagam and the administration of these was entirely in the hands of a lay officer called the diyavadana nilame, appointed by the king from the radala aristocracy.  So in a largely non-monetary economy the services rendered to the maligava were paid by grants of land.  The supply of salt and dried fish could be considered as a purely utilitarian service rendered by the Muslims and involved no religious or cultural significance.  Two Muslims, Mohammed Lebbe and Udum Lebbe occupied the lunudena panguva ( the share that supplies salt) of the village of Pallegampaha Kahavatta belonging to the Dalada Maligava.  The service attached to the share was to supply the maligava with 20 measures of “good clean salt” for the New Year festival.  It is clear from the foregoing that Muslims were involved in the administrative and ritual aspects of the functioning of the dalada maligava. (Dewaraja. p 103-p107).

The tradition connected with the Kahatapitiya mosque near Gampola further illustrates the munificence of the Sinhala kings towards the Muslims. The site where the mosque now stands was a waste land with few trees. According to tradition an ascetic from Mecca sat here in mediation and his dignified motionless posture struck the attention of a toddy tapper who had come to tap the palm tree.  In order to ascertain whether this figure was alive or dead, the tapper is said to have sliced off the tip of his nose.  The ascetic remained motionless.  The following morning the toddy tapper was astonished to see the piece he had cut off re-attached to the nose.  The tapper was overawed and related his experience to the Gampola king, who visited the ascetic and asked him what he needed ‘’only a strip of land to lay my head on,” was the reply.  When the king wished to know the extent required, the ascetic threw his bangle called the sakkara valalla in four directions and indicated the area.  This was granted and the area is still known as sakkarankotuva.  The saint Bhavakauf was deified and a tomb was built in his memory.  Later a mosque sprang up on the same place and it continues to be a well known place of pilgrimage.  Also many lands have been granted to moor men representing high authority within the kingdom, the Lindekotuwa Gedara granted to Abdul Quddus in Gampola and several  other offerings made to dignitaries shows how the kandyan king showed remarkable contributions and tolerance towards the Muslims.

There are several Muslims families in the Udarata even today bearing the family names Mohandiramlage, Vidanelage and Lekamage all of which signify their official connections in the past.  And as we examine this long odyssey of Ceylon moors, it reveals a kind of saga where the foundation of an old community had 
been laid by early Arab traders.

- Zeyan Hashim

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Humanity’s Footprint

Alone with myself exploring the green canopy the call of nature makes me gaze in awe at her splendor. Despite the captivating beauty it renders trees provide a multitude of benefits to serve humanity and keep the environment balanced, it’s hard to imagine a life without trees.
Forests serve humanity and represent a valuable and usually irreplaceable habitat for wildlife. Since creation trees have provisioned us with two of life’s essentials, oxygen and food. As we progressed, they provided additional necessities such as shelter, medicine, and tools. In this era their value continues to increase as modern lifestyle expand.
Humans have practiced deforestation since ages; deforestation is defined as the large-scale removal of trees. It occurs all over the world, but mainly in tropical rainforest. It was in the mid- 19 century that forests began to be depleted at an aberrant rate. The most worrying factors today are the massive destruction of the world’s rainforest disturbing the biodiversity unfavorably.
However the issue is not just about losing a few plants and animals; humanity is affected much more, and if the current rate of deforestation continues, mankind will lose its own quality of life.The tropical forests diversity are perishing rapidly as humans clear the natural landscape to make room for farms and meadows, to harvest timber for construction and fuel, to build roads and countless other means. With all sort of destruction the most dramatic impact is a loss of habitat for millions of species, many of these animals go extinct, approximately we are losing 100 species a day. A fully functioning forest has a great capacity to regenerate but due to excessive depletion of tropical rain forests animal species necessary for forest regeneration is lost, so recovery of damaged forests are slowed down.
Today’s climate change is also one of the biggest long-term problems to global development. Forests have a vital role to play in the fight against global warming; forests absorb and store carbon in their trees and soil. The devastating combination of deforestation and burning of fossil fuels are releasing huge amounts of carbon dixiode into the atmosphere increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If the forests are been damaged at this rate and resolutions aren’t taken immediately to cut less trees as well as replanting those we have taken out the accelerating climate fluctuations are unpreventable.
Depletion of rain forest has fortunately received some significance unlike some environmental issues. Despite the opposition to the cutting down of forests, the problem continues mainly because most countries don’t have proper regulations and the exploitation of rain forests has been quite chaotic. If it continues at this pattern, we will be losing all tropical forests and facing the consequences.

- Zeyan Hashim

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Moaning Ocean

The enchanting ocean is our earth's divine natural resource. Gratify the senses and nourishing the spirit is a blessing of hers. A place of origin for most life, ocean is a home for all sorts of plants and animals. Mainly plants do not live in the deep dark waters of the ocean, but animals are inhabited all around the sea.

Extensive amount of people rely on the ocean for survival as the worlds fishing community bring in millions of tons of fish, in the recent times the severe decline of stocks in many traditional coastal fishing grounds has given rise to an increase in regulations. This, in turn, has intensified the search for new and less fishing grounds. Among the most destructive fishing methods the bottom trawling is the worst of all which destroys important habitat that sustain the ecosystem. In this process of fishing desired species, bottom trawls also catch millions of pounds of unintended species and devastating the coral gardens and sponge beds. The destruction of humans doesn’t stop there; oil spills too immensely contribute to the potential for enormous harm to deep ocean and coastal fishing and fisheries. Although Oil wastes that enter the ocean come from many sources, it is estimated that approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil enter the ocean every year, with over half coming from land drainage, waste disposal and leaks occurring during various stages of well drilling or work over and repair operations. So certainly fisheries will be hurt considerably in time to come.

Bounties of the ocean are countless Coral reefs are among the precious resources in the ocean because of their beauty and biodiversity and mainly they come in a seemingly infinite array of shapes and colors and teem with life, but their beauty is matched by their fragility. Coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the sea, both due to the vast amount of species they harbour, and to the high productivity they yield.

Covering less than one percent of the ocean floor but supporting an estimated 25 percent of all marine life its miraculous diversity and beauty is a powerful attraction for tourism, and well managed tourism provides a sustainable means of earning foreign currency and employment for people around the globe. So beyond a shadow of doubt they benefit people and the natural world far beyond their boundaries.

More than half of the world's coral reefs are at a high risk. The largest living structures on earth, with diversity so rich, there is no other oceanic equivalent, coral reefs are facing serious threats and are rapidly disappearing and the appropriate conditions for them to survive is a delicate, balanced marine environment. They depend upon lots of light and oxygen. They also need clear water, low nutrients, a steady temperature. But with activities like overfishing, coastal development, and pollution being the key habitat degraders. It’s not surprising that human activities threaten coral reefs to greater extend. The protection of the marine environment is the responsibility of everyone, so we must be conscious of the threats to our oceans. If better international regulations aren’t implemented immediately it can be too late to save her.

- Zeyan Hashim

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Precious Gems of Sri Lanka Treasured Around the World

During my wonder years, I used to walk on the sandy beds of river Mahawali collecting pebbles. As I searched for treasures among the stones, I was unaware that the island of Sri Lanka had been blessed with endless streams of precious gems.  Today, whenever I hold a gem between my fingers, I envision the beauty of the island and its rich soil.  I enjoy the purest physical pleasure from the energy I receive from these wonderful gifts of the creator.  I feel complete and whole, as though the perfection of the gems is somehow transferred to me.
In the ancient world, Sri Lanka was known by many names. Second century Greek geographers called it Taprobane.  Third and fourth century Arabic and Persian traders referred to Sri Lanka as Serendib. (From which we find the origin of the word serendipity.)  In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese gave Sri Lanka the name Ceilao when they arrived. When the British arrived and claimed the land as a British Colony, the Portuguese name was translated into English as Ceylon.  The island became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.
Geologically, it has been estimated that nearly 25% of the total land area of Sri Lanka is potentially gem bearing.  The highlands of the island are especially laden with complex gemstone deposits. are most abundent in the gem fields such as Ratnapura, Elahera, Walawe and Ballangodde. There are also many potential gem-bearing areas awaiting exploration. It is quite likely that the jewel box of Sri Lanka will continue to produce its precious treasures for centuries to come.
The Long Heritage of Sri Lankan Gems
There is a long and rich history of producing and trading precious gems within the eastern world.  Looking through historical and fictional writing, it is easy to establish the longstanding connection of Sri Lanka to this gem industry.  The rich and deep cultural connection, has even earned the island the title “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”  Merchants of the coastal towns in Arabia grew so rich, that Greek and Roman historians observed that their doors, walls, and even the roofs of their houses were beautifully inlaid with “ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones from the land of Serendib (Ceylon).”
Legend says that King Soloman of the bible wooed the queen of Sheba with precious stones taken from the “paradise island” of Sri Lanka.  In the second century, astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, recorded that “beryl and sapphires were the mainstay of Sri Lanka’s gem industry”.  The awe-inspiring stories of Sinbad the Sailor are full of rich accounts of Sri Lankan gems and gem deposits, bearing further evidence of the influence of the island’s gemological bounty on the writing and story-telling of the eastern cultures.
In his classic work, ‘Divestment dou Monde’ (Description of the World), Marco Polo, the medieval Venetian traveller and chronicler (c. 1254 – 1324) wrote of the abundance of gemstones during his 1292 visit to Sri Lanka. “I want you to understand that the island of Ceylon is, for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams comes rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst and garnet”.  Sixteenth century Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama noted that “Ceylon has all the fine cinnamon of the Indies and the best sapphires.”

In 1344 Ibn Battuta, the reputed Islamic scholar and traveler  in his travelogue wrote that “gems are found in all localities of the island.  All the women of the Serandib possess necklaces of precious stones of diverse colors.  They wear them on their hands and feet in the form of anklets and bracelets.  I have seen on the forehead of the white elephant several of these precious stones, each of which was larger than a hen’s egg”.

In the seventeenth century, sailor Robert Knox wrote, “In this Island are several sorts of precious stones, which the king for his part has enough of and so careth not to have more discoveries made. Also there are certain rivers out of which it is generally reported that they do take rubies and sapphires and catseyes for the king’s use. And I have seen several pretty colored stones, some as big as cherry stones and some as buttons, and transparent, but understood not what they were. Rubies and sapphires I myself have seen.”

Indeed, the island is considered by many to be one of the oldest sources of sapphires in the world.  Perhaps Dr. Eduard J. Gubelin the famous gemologist, summed it best when he said: “The island of Ceylon was the world’s first source of sapphires and remained the premier supplier of these gem-quality stones for centuries. No sapphire in the world can equal that obtained in Sri Lanka”

                  Sri Lanka Gems Adorn Many Crowns Around the World

Blue Giant of the Orient
At 486.52 carats, this gem is considered to be the largest blue sapphire in the world.  Discovered in Sri Lanka in 1907, the gem was sold to an anonymous American collector and connoisseur of gemstones and art works.  Nothing was heard of the stone until 2004, when the “Blue Giant of the Orient suddenly appeared at a Christie’s Magnificent Jewels sale held on May 19, 2004 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Queen Marie of Romania Sapphire
This 478.68 carat cushion cut deep cornflower blue of Sri Lankan origin could be the most famous and historic sapphire.  The gem was originally purchased by King Ferdinand of Romania for his beautiful consort Queen Marie (1875 – 1938).  On November 19, 2003, the gemstone came up for auction at Christie’s Geneva under the title of “property of a noble family.”  The buyer of the gemstone is unknown.

Logan Blue Sapphire
The Logan is a 423 carat rich deep blue sapphire that was discovered in Sri Lanka.  The gem has ben set in a brooch and surrounded by twenty round brilliant-cut diamonds.  The gem has been named in honour of Mrs. John A. Logan.  She donated the stone to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in 1960.

Blue Belle of Asia

The Blue Belle is  a 400 carat cornflower-blue sapphire that was discovered in Sri Lanka in 1926.  The word “belle” refers to the extraordinary beauty of this enormous beauty of this blue sapphire owned by Lord Naffield of Britain.  The fate of the “Blue Belle of Asia” after his death is not known.

Empress Maria’s Sapphire
This Sri Lankan blue sapphire is 260.37 carats and was purchased by the Russian Emperor ALexander II in the London Great Exhibition of 1862 and presented to his wife Empress Maria Alexandronova.  Two years after her death in 1880, the gem was donated to the State Diamond Fund of theRussian Federation where it is proudly displayed at their museum in Gokhran, Russia.

Bismarck Sapphire
A 98.6 carat cornflower-blue sapphire discovered in Sri Lanka in 1920.  The gemstone was gifted to countess Mona von Bismarck, the fashion icon of that era, by her third husband Herrison Williams in 1926.  Mona von Bismarck donated the stone to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in 1967.

Star of India
This gemstone is a 563.35 carat grayish-blue star sapphire discovered in Sri Lanka.  J.P. Morgan donated the Star of India to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1900.

The Star of Artaban
The Star of Artaban is a 316 carat blue star sapphire of Sri Lankan origin.  The gem was purchased by a member of the Georgia Mineral Society toward the end of 1943. It was later presented anonymously to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Star of Lanka
This grayish-blue star sapphire is 193 carats and was discovered in the 20th century in Sri Lanka.  It was originally owned by Allan Kaplan who sold the gemstone to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1958.

Star of Bombay
The Star of Bombay is a 182 carat violet-blue star sapphire discovered in Sri Lanka.  Given as a gift to Mary Pickford by her husband Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920’s. She bequeathed the gemstone to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., sometime before her death in 1979.

Rosser Reeves Star Ruby
At 138.7, the Rosser Reeves Star Ruby is one of the world’s largest and finest star rubies.  This Sri Lankan stone is renowned for is fantastic colour and well defined star pattern.  Advertising mogul Rosser Reeves donated the piece to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in 1965.

Midnight Star Sapphire

The Midnight Star Sapphire is a 116.75 carat deep purple-violet star sapphire.  It wasdiscovered in Sri Lanka in the 19th century.  J.P. Morgan donated the Midnight Star to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the 1900s.

J.P. Morgan Collection
This collection is made up of three blue star sapphires – 188 carats, 158 carats and 153 carats respectively – of Sri Lankan origin.  They were a part of J.P. Morgan’s personal collection and were donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Star of Ceylon

This 101.01 carat violet-blue star sapphire was originally discovered in Sri Lanka and is now in the hands of a private collector in Seattle, USA.

The Eye of the Lion
This 465 carat chrysoberyl cat’s eye gemstone was discovered in the late 1800’s in Pelmadulla, Sri Lanka.  It was originally owned by a family descended from King Rajasinghe the First, who ruled the island nation from 1581 to 1593.  The family appropriately named the gem “The Eye of the Lion.”  After the Smithsonian expressed interest in acquiring the gemstone in 1978, nothing was heard of it for nearly three decades.  The stone resurface in 2006 to visit the AGTA gemological testing center’s New York lab in the hands of gemstone dealer Jeffery Bergman of Primagem, Bangkok, Thailand.
Hope Cat’s Eye
At 500 carats, the Hope Cat’s Eye is the world’s largest chrysoberyl cat’s eye.  It iscarved to represent an alter surrounded by a torch.  Owned by the wealthy British banker and gem investor Thomas P. Hope, it is now on exhibit at the British Museum of Natural History.

British Royal Jewel
The British Royal Jewel is a 105 carat chrysoberyl cat’s eye of exceptional quality, discovered in Sri Lanka.  It acquired great fame when it was purchased for the British Royalty from a reputed London jeweler around 1900.  It is said that this cat’s eye was cherished by four British monarchs: Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, and Queen Elizabeth II.

Ray of Treasure
The Ray of Treasure is a 103 carat chrysoberyl cat’s eye  discovered in Sri Lanka.  This gemstone is a fine example of the most desirable qualities of cat’s eye stones.  It is currently part of the collection of the National Gem and Jewelry Authority (NGJA) in Sri Lanka.

Maharani Cat’s Eye
The 58.19 carat honey coloured chrysoberyl cat’s eye discovered in Sri Lanka is one of the finest gems of its kind.  It is currently displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Timur Ruby

This 361 carat red spinel discovered in Sri Lanka and was once thought to be a ruby.The gem was originally owned by the Mogul Emperors of India who had their name engraved on the stone.  The Timur Ruby now finds its home among the crown jewels of Great Britain owned by Queen Elizabeth.

star sapphire (unnamed)
This unnamed gemstone is a 393 carat blue star sapphire discovered in Sri Lanka in 1970.  It is part of the collection of the National Gem and Jewelry Authority (NGJA) of Sri Lanka.

Black Prince Ruby

This 170 carat Sri Lankan red spinel is an extraordinary piece with a unique history.  Henry V of England wore a gem-encrusted helmet that included the Black Prince Ruby. Richard III is also reported to have worn the Black Prince Ruby in his helmet at the Battle of Bosworth Field where he died.  It now forms the centerpiece of the imperial state crown of Great Britain and is exhibited in the tower of London.

Splendour of Lanka
An 8042 carat blue sapphire gemstone discovered in Pelmadulla, Sri Lanka.

The Pride of Sri Lanka
The Pride of Sri Lanka is an 856 carat deep blue sapphire.  This gemstone was discovered near Ratnapura in 1998.

Unnamed Sapphire
This stone is a 250 carat deep-blue sapphire discovered in Pelmadulla, Sri Lanka.

Unnamed Yellow Sapphire
A large yellow sapphire weighing 1.3 kilograms was found two kilometers from Ratnapura, Sri Lanka.
Unnamed Corundum Crystal
This is a large homogenous corundum crystal showing parallel growth.

Unnamed Aquamarine Crystal
This large aquamarine crystal weighs 7.5 kilograms and was found near Hatton, Sri Lanka.

Other recent discoveries of large sapphires in the Ratnapura District of Sri Lanka
a) Orange Sapphire (825 carats) – It was transparent and free of cracks.
b) Blue Sapphire (2516 carats) – It was transparent.
c) Blue Sapphire (4002 Carats) – Found in the year 2000.
d) Blue Sapphire (254 carats) – This was a deep-blue sapphire

- Zeyan Hashim