Nethra Samarawickrema is a cultural anthropologist completing her PhD at the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research focuses on speculative mining and the transnational trade of Sri Lankan gemstones in the Indian Ocean region. Prior to her doctoral studies, she obtained an M.A. in Anthropology from Dalhousie University, and a B.A in Politics from Ithaca College.
Sapphires and the Seas: Movement and Stasis in the Indian Ocean
I can’t remember exactly when the Indian Ocean took hold of my imagination. The ocean formed the horizon of my childhood in Colombo where, beyond the city’s receding shorelines and beaches littered with plastic bags, its clear blue waters extended into infinity. As a child I used to stand at the beach, transfixed by the water’s changing textures and tones, feeling as if I had come to the edge of the world I knew. I would return to these shores as an adult, trying to decipher a different world, this time, with the ocean at its centre.
The Indian Ocean began to grip me in a new way in graduate school. I kept thinking about it during listless days in Silicon Valley’s suburbs, where the warmth of the Californian sun was dulled by the cold isolation of its strip malls, office parks, and tech startups that built apps to fill the boredom that hung, like a cloud, over its gated communities. Perhaps it was Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which I read to escape this monotonous urbanscape, seeking additional solace in Chettinad restaurants that served garlic curry and mango lassis to tech workers in Facebook hoodies and their mothers in saris and tennis shoes. Perhaps it was Engseng Ho’s ethnography, which retraced in exquisite prose how a society of people from a little-known Yemeni town came to be scattered around the Indian Ocean over the course of 500 years. Perhaps it was the months I spent as the sole anthropologist in a classroom full of historians, trying to keep up with the maze of dates and details, listening with astonishment at their alacrity in recounting the rise and fall of empires, and the movement of traders, slaves, saints, and smugglers across the Indian Ocean. Stories emerged, excavated by economic historians leafing through letters in dusty archives from Madras to Zanzibar, which showed how the ocean connected coastal communities scattered across its rim. Men from Yemen had married in Malacca. Money-lenders from Chettinad had financed plantations in Ceylon and Burma. Networks of credit had stretched like invisible skeins across its waters, financing trade between India and East Africa.
What had become of this world? Many works of history, I noticed, told a story of decline. Of a world of movement, migration, and trade that thrived before the Portuguese arrived with their gunboats and died a quiet death in the twilight of the British empire when colonies were cut up and partitioned into nations that fiercely policed their newly-drawn borders. But surely, this oceanic world did not disappear so easily into the ether? Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe I envied my colleagues who could retrace this world through their archives, maybe it was something else. I spent my summers travelling for research, compelled by a vague sense that if I retraced the old trading routes that once connected Colombo to port cities across the water, I would find some active traces of trade. I walked through markets in Kochi and Tellicherry, talked to dhow builders in villages near Kozhikode, wandered through bazaars in Singapore and souks in Dubai, meeting gold traders in offices with vaults filled with jewellery and doors reinforced with iron bars. Yet no one could tell me anything about living, breathing connections with Colombo.
Three summers later, I would eventually find what I was looking for when I began to follow the movement of a small, shiny object from villages deep in Sri Lanka’s hinterlands, where the sea was far from sight, to Kowloon in Hong Kong. Below, I share several stories of movement: the movement of sapphires and the men who mine and trade them, and of my own, as I followed my intuition that the world of Indian Ocean trading had not, after all, vanished quietly into the winds.
The last time someone dropped a sapphire into my hand it was not the gemstone that caught my attention but my hastily-cut nails. This happened often. When a faceted stone – with its smooth, polished surfaces and its blue depths refracting the light – was placed in my palm, I would notice my nails. Perhaps this was why I began paying attention to hands. In the two years I spent following the trade of gemstones across the Indian Ocean, each time I was shown a sapphire, I instinctively turned my attention from the stone to the hands that moved them. Now, when I think of the movement of these small objects from Sri Lanka’s mining villages to cities across the ocean, it is a montage of hands that comes to mind: the chipped, dirt-filled nails of mine workers who barely have the chance to hold the stones once they bring them up to the earth’s surface; the brisk fingers of managers who take these stones away from miners’ panning baskets; the well-padded palms of mine owners, their fingers adorned with thick, studded rings; the leathery hands of gem cutters; the dancing fingers of brokers holding the stones to the sun to check their colour, quality, and luminosity; and the neatly-cut nails of traders selling these stones to buyers in Hong Kong.
These hands carry imprints and traces of the objects they move. Yet the stories of their movements, and the dreams that propel these journeys, are harder to discern. What is it like for these men to transport gems from mine shafts to village markets, from the hinterlands to the coast, and then across the ocean? How does movement itself shape the way they experience the borders of the nation and the boundaries of their own ethnic and religious communities? Over three years, I began to piece their stories together, like a series of magnets that variously link up and break apart.
Across the Palk Strait
‘I knew Colombo before Chennai,’ Anwar Hajiar, a 75-year-old Indian gem trader told me. I stopped writing my notes and looked at him, making sure I had heard him correctly. ‘It’s true,’ he said smiling, his fingers stroking his graying beard. I was having lunch with him in an office in Colombo. Between mouthfuls of rice, which he scooped from a parcel of rice and curry that he shared with his nephew, Salman, Anwar Hajiar told me about the rhythms of circular movement that had shaped his life from the age of 14. He was born in Kayalpatnam, a small coastal town in South India. Anwar Hajiar grew up moving back and forth between Kayalpatnam, where his mother, sisters, and female relatives lived, and Colombo, where he stayed in a shophouse, along with his father and uncles. They had rented a tiny apartment in the middle of the Pettah, a bazaar in the old colonial commercial center, in a tight maze of streets fanning out from the city’s harbour. They were gem traders who had moved back and forth across the Palk Strait for at least seven generations.
Anwar Hajiar described the route he would take to travel from Colombo to Kayalpatnam, naming a string of towns between Sri Lanka and South India. These towns were connected by a network of railways and ferries that once made up the Indo-Ceylon Express. ‘At that time I came and went,’ he said, waving his hands back and forth as he spoke of his youth. ‘You know,’ he continued, leaning forward, ‘then there were no passports or visas. Just a permit card. I could come and go as I pleased.’ Having spent more days than I would care to count filing paperwork in visa offices and embassies while travelling on my Sri Lankan passport, I found Anwar Hajiar’s tale of unencumbered movement hard to imagine. Yet a larger question intrigued me. Why did Anwar Hajiar and the men in his family travel across the water, pursuing education and dreams of making money in Colombo, when the colonial-era railways connected Kayalpatnam to Madras and Madurai? ‘Why Colombo, Hajiar?’ I had asked. ‘What about other places closer to home?’ It was then that he told me he knew Colombo before Chennai. That people from his town, perched at the edge of the subcontinent, had walked the length and breadth of Ceylon’s towns and villages before they travelled to India’s metropoles. It continued to remain a mystery to me, albeit an exciting one.
Three weeks later, I found myself standing on a beach in Kayalpatnam with Anwar Hajiar’s nephew, Salman. I looked out at the Indian Ocean, absorbing the idea that I was seeing it from a different vantage point, at the edge of the subcontinent, rather than the southern coast of the island I grew up on. This time, I was learning to look with borrowed eyes. While his young son wriggled out of his arms and tore down the beach, Salman stood beside me and my husband. He was quiet for a while, his face turned upwards to the wind. He was a tall man, with hair that fell across his eyes. He had an air of confidence about him, a kind of brazenness. While he had spent hours talking to me in Colombo, and had shown us around his hometown of Kayalpatnam, I had the sense that there were things in the interior reaches of his mind that he was not willing to reveal. He had given up gem trading, ending a six generation-long occupation in his family.
He turned his head, looking briefly at me, and nodded towards the sea. ‘When you look at the water, what do you see?’ he asked. ‘The Indian Ocean?’ I quipped, knowing already that this was not the answer he was looking for. ‘No, what do you see beyond the water?’ he asked. I shook my head, puzzled. ‘Mannar,’ came the answer. Mannar was a small island in north-eastern Sri Lanka, the tip of which used to house the terminus of the old railway line that connected passengers from Colombo to the ferry that crossed the Palk Strait to Rameswaram in South India. Salman continued, ‘You take a boat from here, and it is a straight shot to Mannar.’ Confused, I asked, ‘But I thought the ferry left from Rameswaram, further north?’ also remembering that by the time Salman reached adulthood, the ferry had stopped running. He grinned. ‘This is the unofficial route.’ He spoke of how fishing boats had regularly made crossings in the open sea long before he was born, ferrying men, gold, and goods of all kinds between the two places. He then told me of his own travels across the water as a teenager, unbeknownst to his father, travelling on fishing boats in the middle of the night at the height of the Civil War in Sri Lanka. ‘What was it like?’ I asked. ‘Terrifying. And thrilling,’ he said. Listening to him, looking out at the ocean, I suddenly realised that while Salman and I had both grown up in Colombo, the body of water he saw didn’t have the maritime borders I had seen in maps and taken for granted. Sketched in his mind was a different cartography, where the water connected, rather than separated, Sri Lanka and South India. Despite the fact that this maritime border was militarised and enforced during his lifetime, I sensed that he saw it as one continuous space that encompassed his life in Colombo and his sondha ur, place of origin, Kayalpatnam. It was from this water that his great-grandfather and grand-uncles had made their money by financing pearl diving. It had been from here that they ventured out to Colombo to source gems and sell them to jewellers across Europe. Their world had revolved around this space, and it was first pearls and then gems that drew them to Colombo rather than Chennai.
In the days I spent in Kayalpatnam, as I was drawn into the warmth of its pastel-coloured multi-generational family homes, fragments of Colombo showed up everywhere. Wives of gem traders took me into bedrooms with almirahs that looked all too familiar, hauled across the water by husbands bringing gifts in their early days of marriage. Dressing tables carried old biscuit tins holding hairpins much like the ones my grandmother kept her sewing needles in. Walking down the street, a trader I had met in Colombo took me to his house, which still bore large letters that read ‘The Ceylon House.’ Conversations about Colombo over dinner tables and wedding feasts, however, often carried a tone of sadness and nostalgia.
The back and forth movement that Anwar Hajiar described had abruptly come to an end. In the early 1970s, caving into nationalist pressure to curtail the presence of Indian traders and financiers on the island, the government of Ceylon stopped issuing the temporary resident permits Anwar Hajiar used to travel. Men who had spent childhoods in Colombo and had lived and worked there for generations were given three months to leave. ‘It felt like receiving a death warrant,’ an older trader told me. While those who had obtained citizenship stayed, most others left and relocated their community farther away in Hong Kong. From here they continued trading, travelling to Sri Lanka to buy stones and then selling them to buyers in their new home. It was through this migration that Sri Lankan sapphires began to make their way to the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong.
From the Coast to the Interior
‘The Sinhalese people we know are not our neighbours next door, but the traders inland, in Ratnapura, from whom we buy gems,’ Ismail Hajiar said, replying to my question. It was our first meeting in Beruwala, a coastal town in the southern part of Sri Lanka. On most days, it was a sleepy place, where traders would leave to buy gems and return for the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when its streets came alive. Traders dressed in sarongs and prayer caps would gather in the crowded streets carrying in their hands white paper packets with blue and yellow sapphires, rubies, tanzanites, and rare padparadschas, pink stones shot through with tinges of orange. Beruwala, like Kayalpatnam, is a place where family homes – ornate, multi-story structures built from money earned through the gem trade – line the streets, housing grandparents, children, and new mothers, while younger men come and go. In the stillness of these homes, with vacant bedrooms and living rooms built to host wedding feasts and naming ceremonies, older women spend long afternoons drinking cardamom-spiced coffee, peering over WhatsApp photos from sons in Madagascar and Mozambique, Bangkok and Tanzania.
Like many of these men, Ismail Hajiar was born and raised in Beruwala. Yet he grew up in a modest home. While his wealthier relatives travelled abroad to sell faceted gemstones for thousands of dollars, he had cornered a different market, one closer to home. He too left home several times a week, and had done so for forty years. Yet his travels took him away from the coast, up winding mountainous roads, to Ratnapura, a dusty trading town in the island’s interior, surrounded by villages where mineshafts peppered the landscape, scattered across paddyfields, temple grounds, tea plantations, and backyards of homes. A Tamil-speaking Muslim, Ismail Hajiar had taught himself Sinhala to buy gems from Sinhalese men in these villages. He knew every face in the market. He ate at their weddings and attended the funerals of their parents. He was known in town for his keen eye for yellow sapphires. He bought uncut stones from Sinhalese traders who acquired them from the mines and sold these stones in Beruwala, where they would be cut, polished, and resold, eventually making their way into the hands of Kayalpatnam’s traders, who circulated them in Indian markets.
Months after our first meeting, I would stand next to him in the middle of a crowded intersection with the sun bearing down on us, watching him trade. He would teach me how to read a stone, turning it around in his palm, his hands grazing its pebbly surfaces, his eyes squinting as he looked at its interior. I would learn from him how to hold it up to the sun, how to detect its bands of light and dark, its cracks and inclusions. He would show me how to discern its wakkuwa, the axis every gem cutter looked for to cut the stone in a way that reflected the most brilliant hue. ‘Cut it this way, and you get the best colour,’ he would tell me, his fingers tracing a line on the stone. ‘Cut it that way, and it dulls the stone.’ Yet these mornings spent looking at stones under the glare of the sun would come later. What caught my attention about Ismail Hajiar at our first meeting was how he talked about his relationship with the men in these mining towns.
It came up when I asked him about the riots. Two years before, Aluthgama, the town next to Beruwala, had been devastated by anti-Muslim riots. Ismail Hajiar’s neighbourhood and the gem market in Beruwala had remained unharmed, yet it had left everyone shaken. I asked him if these riots – carried out by mobs led by militant Sinhalese Buddhist groups – had made him reconsider his relationship with his Sinhalese trading partners in the hinterland mining towns. Ismail Hajiar shot me a wide-eyed smile and gently told me I had missed the point. ‘No, sister,’ he said. ‘Beruwala and Ratnapura are connected through the gem trade. The people there do business with us. They know our ways. We exchange stones on credit every day, without receipts. How is that possible? It’s because we know each other. The Sinhalese people around us don’t know us – we may know the shop owners, but our families don’t have any relationships. When there is no knowledge, all you see is ethnicity.’
Listening to Ismail Hajiar, I began to discern a different way of perceiving nearness and distance. He was saying that he remained a stranger to his Sinhalese neighbours in the surrounding coastal towns, while he had become a close and familiar presence amongst Sinhalese traders 80 kilometers away. Those who are near, he was suggesting, are not necessarily known, and cannot be relied upon for protection from harm, while partners across the trading network might be safe to engage with. Yet how had he forged a sense of proximity with these distant traders? What did he mean when he said they ‘knew’ him? Months later, while watching Ismail Hajiar and others haggle, cajole, sweet talk, and protest over prices in Ratnapura’s markets, I would come to see how traders from both places have fine-tuned the art of buying low and selling high while maintaining a sense of trustworthiness amongst each other. How they repeatedly make risky transactions, knowing that they might be betrayed at any time. How stones ferried from the hinterland to the coast by Beruwala’s traders and credit lines extended to them by Ratnapura’s traders have yoked their markets together, so that one cannot function without the other. I would come to learn that traders such as Ismail Hajiar operate under the assumption that there is something to be gained by forging unlikely alliances with others across religious lines, for these men may bring access to gemstones and buyers they cannot reach alone. Over forty years, Ismail Hajiar has travelled back and forth between Beruwala and Ratnapura, cultivating these relationships, transaction by transaction, to the point that he is no longer reducible to a stereotype for his trading partners in the mining towns.
I would come to see all this much later. That morning in Beruwala, however, I sat mulling over Ismail Hajiar’s words, wondering what to make of them. It was then that I had a sudden flash of memory of the beach in Kayalpatnam, where I looked at the water with Salman, and realised what Anwar Hajiar meant when he said he knew Colombo before Chennai. Here again, on a different coast, I had to see with new eyes to understand what proximity meant for gem traders. It began to dawn on me that for Beruwala’s traders, Ratnapura may feel closer than the neighbourhoods nearby.
Homes to Mines
Nimal set out from his home for the mine at 4.30 am, walking down a winding road to catch the bus that would take him to the next town over. When the bus didn’t turn up, as often happened, he would walk five kilometers to the mine where he worked as a foreman. He was a wiry man with shaven head and darkened skin from hours in the sun. His face and body bore the imprints of decades spent at the mines. The taut muscles of his torso protruded under the skin of his otherwise thin frame, while his slightly bowed legs took him down mine shafts with a nimbleness surprising for his age. His face was etched with deep lines and his eyes were quick to flare up at his crewmen but would soften slightly when the landowner’s three-year-old grandchild wrapped her chubby arms around his knees.
His daily journey comprised of two parts, the five-kilometre-long walk from his home to the mine and the thirty-foot-deep descent into the murky bottom of a mine shaft. This was no easy task, even for younger workers. The shaft was less secure than most, as they had buttressed it with salvaged pieces of wood, which were low in supply. The walls leaked with sand and water, making the rita, the pole they gripped to descend the shaft, slimy and wet. While the other men climbed down, holding the pole with both hands, straddling the scaffolding with their feet, Nimal didn’t have this luxury. He swung his way down the shaft, with his right hand wrapped around the pole and his legs doing the work of balancing. His left hand ended at his elbow, so he had no fingers with which to grasp the pole.
Nimal had lost the lower part of his hand in an accident in a rubber factory years ago, when he had abandoned mine work for a while and decided to try a job with a more regular pay. Then his hand got caught in a machine. Within seconds, it was severed from his elbow. A year later, he was back at the mines. He taught himself to climb the shaft, hew wood, and work the pulley with a single hand. With little patience for dawdlers, he would wave the stump of his left hand in front of crewmen who complained of being tired or feigned illness. They would silently return to work.
I came to know Nimal over the year and a half I spent travelling to the mining villages in Ratnapura. I first met him at the mine where he worked. There was something about him that had caught my attention from the beginning – perhaps it was the focussed expression on his face as he hewed a block of wood, pressing the stump of his left hand into one end while he brought the axe down on the other end with his right. Perhaps it was my surprise at his candor, as he spoke openly of exploitation at the mines by wealthy Sinhalese landlords. He refused to work for such men who were known for the callousness with which they treated their workers and had joined a mine that came as close to a worker-owned operation as I had seen. It was jointly run by a landowner and eight workers cobbling together salvaged material to dig in his backyard. They had agreed to split the profits evenly. Yet months of work had passed, and no stones had been found.
I began visiting Nimal and his wife at their home. They lived several kilometers away from the markets that Ismail Hajiar came from Beruwala to trade in. The two men travelled some of the same roads and may have even crossed paths on their way to work. But the preoccupations and itineraries of the traders bargaining on the streets were impermeable to miners like Nimal, whose travels took him from his home into the depths of the earth. He and his wife lived in a modest home which was more like a small series of structures than a house. There was one free-standing room with no doors leading to any other rooms. They had turned it into a living room, with brown plastic chairs and an old television. Adjacent to the television was a shrine with a statue of the Buddha and a plate for fresh flowers that they placed on it every morning. The only other substantial piece of furniture was a wooden cabinet with a glass door. In it, Nimal’s wife, Sumana, had placed china that she had collected over the years – porcelain tea cups, bowls, and glasses, which she had arranged in rows. The cabinet not only stored these objects, but also displayed them, small riches in an otherwise sparse house. Adjacent to this structure was a small room, which I assumed was their bedroom. Outside, was a pit toilet. Later, I would learn that they had decided not to add any more rooms, even when small amounts of money trickled in, because they lived behind a mountain that had been declared landslide prone, and the local authorities regularly came to ask them to leave. ‘Where would we go?’ Nimal scoffed as he told me about this. ‘It is not like the municipality is going to give us new land.’
Two years later, after returning to California, I would think back to this moment. In May that year, during a long monsoon season, I tried to get in touch with Nimal after hearing the news of the floods and landslides that had followed months of relentless rain. After trying for several days, I finally reached him. When I heard his voice over a thin, crackling line, I knew that the fears tightening my stomach were confirmed. ‘We are finished,’ he said, sounding defeated. ‘The house is gone.’ He was taking shelter in a temple, while his wife had gone to Colombo’s suburbs to stay with their sons. I remembered the house that I had spent so many evenings in – its blue walls, its plastic chairs, and the china his wife had collected over the years. I thought of the mountain bearing down upon all of it, crushing the porcelain cups. I couldn’t stop thinking about those cups in fragments, like their lives.
I realised as I spoke to Nimal that the landslide had devastated his life doubly. Not only had it taken his house, but because his miner’s earnings had not left any savings to buy new land, he would have to stay with his children who lived miles away from the mining villages. With no home to walk from, he could no longer make his daily commute to the mine.
Looking Across the Ocean
Before flying to California at the end of fieldwork, I spent my last evening at home by taking a walk at Galle Face Green, a promenade overlooking the ocean. I breathed in the salty air, getting wafts of roasting manioc chips and prawn vades from nearby hawker stalls. Children were flying kites and passing balls back and forth. The ice-cream vans I had once run towards clutching five rupee coins were still there, while the skyline had transformed beyond recognition in the postwar construction boom. Colombo looked and felt different to me, not only as the city had seen dramatic changes since I was a child, but also because my own sense of its place in a wider Indian Ocean region had changed. I realised then that by learning to see through the eyes of traders, my own geographic sensibilities had changed. The ocean I was looking at no longer seemed like the point at which the island came to an end, but rather where its linkages to networks across the water began. The railway station a few kilometres north of where I stood had been a part of the Indo-Ceylon Express that brought traders and migrants across the Palk Strait. The Pettah Market, which sprawled out from Colombo’s harbour, was where Anwar Hajiar and other Kayalpatnam traders ran a trading network that sent Sri Lankan sapphires mined in Ratnapura to Hong Kong, the Gulf States, and Europe.
As I followed this network, travelling between Ratnapura, Beruwala, Kayalpatnam, and Hong Kong, I had come to understand the extent to which movement makes the gem trade. Gems cannot circulate without the men who move them, from the depths of the earth to its surface, and across the sea. Yet, not all these movements are the same. Miners who travel down unstable mine shafts put their lives at risk each day in search of gems. The structure of mining, which ensures that mine owners – some of whom already possess immense amounts of wealth – gain most of the profits, leave workers like Nimal vulnerable in the face of devastating loss. When their journeys underground are halted – from injury and disaster – they have few resources to rebuild their lives.
Traders move through less precarious worlds as they transport gems between markets. Yet they too have faced destabilising transformations –in political landscapes, changing immigration regulations, and anti-minority riots – that have undone well-established routes and threatened trading relationships across ethnic lines. Despite this, traders carry attachments to places and spatial sensibilities that don’t fit within the borders of nations. Theirs is a world connected by different coordinates, coordinates that link roadside markets in mining villages to homes in Beruwala and Kayalpatnam, and offices in Kowloon’s high-rise buildings overlooking Hong Kong’s panoramic skyline.
Post-independence immigration policies had worked to sever these links in Sri Lanka as in many other parts of the Indian Ocean region. Borders had tightened. Visas had become harder to secure. The ease of movement that Anwar Hajiar described had become a thing of the past. Indeed, it made sense that the historical works on Indian Ocean trading, which I spent years pouring over in preparation for research, narrated a story of decline. Yet, as I moved about this world with men who worked in the gem trade, it became clear to me that while their movements had become restricted, and sometimes needed to be rerouted, they still operated according to an older logic, where credit lines and relationships that relied on trust – built, broken, and restored over time – connected geographically dispersed people, and where nearness and distance could be recalibrated so that Colombo felt closer to Kayalpatnam than Chennai, and Ratnapura nearer to Beruwala than the neighbourhoods nearby.
 All names have been changed to protect the identities of research participants.