Ship of 'Ignorants' & One Wise Man
As remembered by Henri
II - Ceylon and the Gem Mines of Ratnapura
Map Of Colombo Harbour, Ceylon
introduced a week of fasting prior to arrival in Colombo.
That is, the traditional fasting according to the Order,
meaning no meals served after the Noon-hour. Although
the Bhikkhu gave daily discourses on Buddha Dharma, he
now also stepped up the sharing of his vast expertise
and knowledge about precious and semi-precious gemstones.
He had already
touched on the subject while teaching in Canada, but now
the moment of truth was about to arrive. We were going
to visit the mines of Ratnapura on the island of Sri Lanka
- then still called Ceylon - our next port of call. Ananda
Bodhi emphasized we should get acquainted with our 'birth
stone', so that at least we would all get our own zodiac
starry nights while sailing the Indian Ocean provided
many a night of celestial teaching. It being his nature,
Ananda Bodhi not only talked about the constellations
overhead but wandered off to discuss the early stargazers
and astronomers, from desert dwellers and the Egyptian
Pharaohs, to the first star- guided navigators. He then
moved again to gems, such as the star ruby and star sapphire.
We were told what to look out for - such as the clarity
and chatoyancy of the stone, how the star had to move
when the stone moved. If not, the "staying put"
of a star indicates a synthetic or imitation stone.
precious, rare and remarkable Alexandrite, green
in daylight and reddish-brown in electric light
Bhikkhu went to great lengths to describe and explain
the very rare Alexandrite, which we might get in Ratnapura.
Because of its remarkable nature, being reddish-mauve
or brown under incandescent light and green in daylight,
he termed it the 'stop and go' gem. It is a very hard
and durable stone, being 8½ on the Moh scale -
diamond being the hardest, at 10. This gemstone is the
birthstone for Gemini. We had two Gemini's amongst us
- Tony Olbrecht/Sonam - and the late Irwin Burns.
May I mention
at this point that both my grandfathers were diamond-facetters
in the Netherlands, while my maternal grandfather was
also a diamond cleaver. My father, likewise, was a diamond-facetter.
The term "diamond-cutter" is not correct, we
say "facetter". So I was aware of things such
as carat weight, spectrum presence, and durability - diamonds
being the hardest as I mentioned, 10 out of 10 on the
Moh scale. This combined with my familiarity and experience
with colour as an artist, made these unique discourses
on gemstones and their connections with the ancient Mysteries
more than just a passing interest.
before our scheduled arrival in Colombo was in many respects
the most disciplined up to that moment in our voyage.
We had 8-hour meditation sessions! And yes, for those
readers who know Part One of this journal, we continued
to listen to our meagre collection of classical music
- in addition to the "Rite Of Spring" by Stravinsky,
"Afternoon Of A Faun" by Debussy, and "Carmina
Burana" by Carl Orff, we had the 4th piano concerto
by Ludwig van Beethoven. By now, we had all slowly but
surely memorized the Debussy and van Beethoven works;
the others were more complicated.
we followed diligently all the given instructions I described
in Part One of this journal: we took showers with a friend,
ate the bleached lettuce, and kept some apples. Upon approaching
Colombo, cargo ships and small fishing boats appeared
on the horizon. Just one day before arriving in Colombo,
the Captain told us there was a strike in the harbour!
We'd have to anchor offshore. More than ever, food and
water had to be rationed with strict discipline.
had the anchor dropped than several small boats surrounded
us - merchants and vendors with all kinds of wares and
goodies for sale. Cigarettes, brandy, whiskey, woven,
painted or batik fabrics - yes, even precious and semi-
precious gemstones were on offer. Bargaining was conducted
from deck to the noisy and eager vendors; merchandise
was raised and currency lowered in woven baskets.
and tempting as this was, we waited until going ashore.
The crew, however, did purchase from the vendors, including
fresh oriental vegetables snapped up by the ship's cook.
After two days of looking at the port and dock of Colombo
while at anchor, the Captain was allowed, through negotiations
with the strikers, to have his ship tugged to the dock,
under one strict condition: no unloading or loading of
cargo until permission was granted.
He was given
this privilege of docking because of we ten passengers.
The unexpected strike would allow us bonus time on the
Island. Not only would we go to Ratnapura, but we could
also visit Kandy, the Temple of the Tooth of the Buddha,
criss-cross the beautiful island and relax at remote beaches.
Buddha, Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
point in time Ananda Bodhi donned his robes for the first
time on our voyage, much to the surprise of the Captain
and crew! We now had firm land under our feet for the
first time since leaving the port of Genoa. With our wobbly
sealegs, it took some time to get used to! We rented cars
with Buddhist drivers - obvious by their long white skirts.
The Sinhalese paid respects to Ananda Bodhi, now is his
official Bhikkhu attire.
first aim - visiting the monastery where he had previously
studied. As a courtesy to the Order we had to get there
before Noon, since no meals were being served after that
until the next morning. The apples we had saved were put
to good use. All the taxi drivers got a few and were very
grateful. Never in our experience had just a few apples
been so warmly received!
On our way
to the monastery Ananda Bodhi ordered the cars to stop,
along a hot dusty road. He had spotted a 'fruit' stand.
I had the honour to bite into what he called 'the local
apple'. I did, but also spat out the first bite. It was
like biting into a layer of fine, sour sand. Much to the
delight of the Bhikkhu and our group. "Now you know",
he said, "why I asked you beings to keep those apples."
A few others tried to same thing, all with the same reaction.
There is absolutely no juice in those Sri Lankan apples!
we reached the monastery before Noon, allowing the Teacher
to have lunch with the other monks. We had to wait until
they'd all finished, when we were served a frugal but
nourishing bowl of food - but in a hurry, it was almost
Noon. Later on the Bhikkhu would make up for it, when
we had a delicious lunch the next day in Kandy. Tasty
but very spicy. While writing these lines, I can still
feel the tears in my eyes. Cool beer helped a bit, but
more so the patties and yoghurt.
Adam's Peak, where the tea plantations are located, as
well as historic Kandy and The Temple of the Buddha's
tooth. We spotted many elephants bathing in rivers, observed
giant fruit bats (flying foxes) hanging in trees, and
continued to sample the appetizing Sinhalese cuisine -
be it breakfast or lunch, but now we were a bit more adapted.
bathing, Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
like we were travelling into the past, at the time of
Rudyard Kipling, through all those quaint villages and
the lush green interior. We rested and bathed at deserted
coconut-palm beaches before heading to the gem haven -
the mines of Ratnapura. The strike at the docks would
last at least a week, so we had ample time. A good thing,
since visas were required for Burma. The ambassador at
the Burmese embassy came out to pay his respects to Venerable
the gem-bearing streams, Ratnapura
at Ratnapura on a very hot and humid day. The gemstones
are found in clay deposits in gravel pits and in riverbed
sediments. Workers spent endless hours in the scorching
heat scooping clay into flat baskets. They tossed them
up the riverbank to their overseers, the 'connoisseurs',
who in turn emptied them onto heaps of dried earth. After
drying in the baking sun, raw gemstones were separated
from the ordinary pebbles with the speed and ease of chickens
pecking amongst gravel at kernels of grain.
Polishing, 19th century, Ratnapura, Ceylon
raw gemstones were facetted and polished the ancient way
by foot-driven wheel, after which they were selected,
weighed and put on sale in a large showroom. The huge
ceiling fans tempted us to go inside, a welcome relief
from the scorching heat. A mixture of both precious and
semi-precious gems - along with imitation stones - was
laid out onto a long table covered in white linen.
were closely watched by several security guards and of
course, the salesmen. Ratnapura in those days, was one
of the few places on earth where the rare Alexandrite
and Chrysoberyl Cat's Eye gems could be found. The Alexandrite
is, as I mentioned, sometimes called the 'stop & go'
jewel because it's green under daylight and reddish- mauve
or brownish under incandescent light.
were left to their own devices in selecting their gems.
It was a matter of policy that no advice is given to purchasers.
The buyer is totally and utterly responsible for what
they select, based on their own level of taste and know-how.
Since precious, semi-precious and synthetic stones were
displayed together - buyers had to beware. This is what
made the Ratnapura experience so unusual, and unthinkable
today, when regulations require everything to be labeled
indicating type of stone, carat weight, price tag, etc.
was understandably the first one to review the vast collection
and select from it. Alexandrites, tourmalines, zircons,
garnets, Chrysoberyl cat's eyes, sapphires and more were
all displayed. Sonam, being a Gemini, got a rare Alexandrite.
He recently told me he has never taken the ring off. We
all had our turn. Myself, I selected a beautiful, large
blue- sheen Moonstone, a 'one of a kind', a peridot (my
birthstone), along with a Chrysoberyl cat's eye, and some
Cat's Eye - a rare and precious gemstone, not to
be confused with the common tiger's eye quartz
It is a
known fact that even today the riverbeds and clay deposits
at Ratnapura bring forth an abundance of stones. Tourmalines,
in their wide range of colours, are the most commonly
found gemstone on the site. You could say that other than
diamonds, emeralds, pigeon-blood rubies, cornflower blue
sapphires, opals, lapis lazuli and precious topaz, most
gemstones can be found at Ratnapura - including the exotic
Padparadscha (Sanskrit for Lotus Blossom), with its lotus
blossom colour, which at the time of our visit was not
precious Padparadscha (sapphire), found only in
Sri Lanka, featuring the delicate pinkish-orange
colour that resembles a Lotus blossom - hardness
of 9 on the Moh scale, being Corundum.
exposed to this variety in such quantity and quality,
upon leaving the showroom in the blinding sun, my eyes
flickered still from all the colour and glimmering stones.
It was at Ratnapura that the late Irwin Burns (wherever
you are, old friend) succeeded in buying an artificial
Alexandrite and a synthetic star sapphire amongst the
other stones he purchased. Not long after he had it set,
Irwin lost the Alexandrite ring in a mild undertow while
swimming at one of the beaches. Goes to show you, that
even after all the lengthy discourses on gemstones by
the Teacher, including what to look out for, it's still
possible to get caught buying fake stones, right at the
source where the real ones are to be found.
error in judgement? It must be said, that it isn't easy
to see the difference between a genuine star ruby or sapphire
and a fake one. With the Alexandrite it's easier to tell,
since it should be green in daylight and reddish in electric
light. However, later on board when Ananda Bodhi made
him aware that all the other gemstones he had were genuine,
Irwin was so pleased that he promptly gave a few of them,
for dana to the Teacher.
had extra days to spend due to the strike at the Colombo
docks. Ananda Bodhi made it known that we could get our
stones, preferably the birthstone, set in Colombo prior
to our departure for Rangoon. Some of us just did that.
One of our driver-guides recommended a reliable goldsmith
amongst the many to choose from. I spotted a beautiful
star-ruby in a ring. It fitted this Leo perfectly. Many
years later, I had the cat's eye set into a ring which
I still have to this day. That was 34 years ago. Alas,
I don't have the star ruby any longer. It is not my intention
to go into the multifold merit of studying gemstones or
their healing qualities; once the mind's eye, the soul,
sees beyond monetary values - they open up a world of
undreamed dimensions and vistas.
mishap befell one of our group. She was approached at
the Colombo market by a so-called money changer. The black
market offered many more rupees than the going bank rate.
She had $50 U.S. changed into rupees in the crowded market.
When she went to make use of the money, she discovered
to her shock that only the first 2 and last 2 bills were
real, the rest of the bundle were all fake. By then the
'money-changer' had long disappeared into the crowd. Such
befalls the unalerted one in the Teaching of Awareness.
evening prior to our departure for Rangoon, we all shared
our newly- acquired possessions, prompting Ananda Bodhi
to give us more profound insights into the gemstones we
had now purchased. The strike was over, cargo taken care
of and anchor lifted. Goodbye Ceylon. Bay of Bengal, here
we come! Coming up: Part Three - Burma, Rangoon and the
Shwedagon Temple, then Continuing on to The Ganges &
truly recently returned to Sri Lanka as a guest
artist & lecturer aboard an around the world
cruise (Colombo was one of 35 ports of call), thirty-two
years after the pilgrimage with Ananda Bodhi - visiting
the elephant orphanage.