Out of the blue, a 'gem rush' hits a poor village in Sri Lanka

The poor inhabitants of Aluth Nuwara, a village tucked away in Sri Lanka's southern hills, have eked out livings as farm laborers and hired miners for centuries. Indeed, this village might have remained unchanged for several more centuries were it not for a remarkable phenomenon in late September.

An old miner inadvertently discovered a large cache of sapphires on a nearby hill and, almost overnight, Aluth Nuwara was home to at least five rupee-millionaires and hundreds of wealthy inhabitants.

The heat was intense that morning when Martin Seeya and three other miners set out for the banks of the Walawe Ganga, bordering their tiny village. Rather than taking the long route to the river, the four men took a shortcut over a jungle-clad hill. Mr. Seeya sat down under a tree and idly scraped the earth at his feet with his ''illam stick,'' a metal device used to dig gem-bearing gravel. Suddenly, he glanced down in amazement.

The gravel he had carelessly brushed away revealed a hard, glittering substance. ''No, this cannot be true!'' he cried, rubbing his eyes.

There, around his bare feet, was a thick layer of sparkling blue sapphires.

Spellbound, Seeya and his three friends dug the surface, filling their bags until they finally trudged home with their booty. Upon entering the village, the men blurted out their unfathomable find to neighbors. And it was their story that sparked off a treasure hunt reminiscent of the California gold rush days.

Suddenly all roads led to the sapphire-encrusted hill, which was soon renamed ''menik kande,'' or hill of gems. People came in hundreds, then in thousands. They came from miles around, not just from Aluth Nuwara, but from hundreds of miles throughout the district.

''Martin Seeya says we will soon be rich and have fine clothes and brand new toys. We will even have a television,'' an excited child exclaimed. ''Martin Seeya should know. He has thrown away his old bullock cart and is driving around in a flashy red car.''

For two more miles on the banks of the Walawe, people of all ages crowded in the emerald green river, bent over huge cane baskets, which they deftly turned in the swirling waters.

The whole operation was silent, intense. People were oblivious as four working elephants bathed nearby. What was amazing about this feverish activity was that there was no animosity among the people. They had all come to mutual agreements and were working together, looking for their respective fortunes.

It is estimated that well over 10,000 people found their fortunes on the hill , some small, but some of them very large.

Still, the treasure hunters are often apprehensive when local strangers appear. ''We don't trust anybody, because in the past week we have had a very tough time,'' lamented villager Jayalat Dissanayake. ''Big time mudalalis (brokers or middlemen) are working in collaboration with the police.''

There is controversy as to how the gems materialized. Some theorize that it is the buried treasure of King Suriya, an ancient monarch who ruled from Aluth Nuwara centuries ago. The government's archeological department supported this view.

Not all theories about this remarkable find are so poetic. The State Gem Corporation, which is in the process of acquiring the land from the Forestry Department to auction off parcels to the highest bidders, postulates that it is an unusual but natural gem-bearing area that has been pushed up during geological formation. Leonard Gunawardene, chairman of the Gem Corporation, claims that although this theory is unusual, it is not impossible. Surveys of the area, he added, have revealed that it is teeming with gems.

Understandably, the deficit-plagued Sri Lankan government would like to profit on the international market from the island's world-renowned blue sapphires, a whopping 90 percent of which are smuggled out of the country.

But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, and until the corporation purchases the land, the gem rush continues.

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