July 2018


A Day in Ratnapura
July 2018




Sabaragamu Maha Saman Devalaya located amidst the serene environs of Ratnapura

As dawn breaks, the town of Ratnapura readies itself for another day of frenzy, a busy urban centre, where modern industry blends with history and religion.


Words: Jennifer Paldano Goonewardene
Photographs: Menaka Aravinda and Geeth Viduranga


Ratnapura - the city of gems, is also the abode of the gods. Ratnapura was recovering from a heavy monsoonal downpour. As such, the atmosphere continued to shift between bright and gloomy.


Away from the fluidity of the town, sheltered within a serene environment, the Sabaragamu Maha Saman Devalaya was receiving devotees bearing offerings of fruit. Situated atop an elevated ground, many may deem that its architecture is familiar, but, beyond the outward, it is the foremost place of worship among the community.


The simple structure begins with a long stairway that leads to a verandah - the drumming hall. The large dragon arch above the doorway to the shrine room, with god Saman carved at the helm, also depicts the three ancestral clans of the country, the yaksha, naga and deva. A carved door of golden colour leads to the inner sanctuary, where the divine reposes. Two auxiliary chambers - a Budhu Gey and a shrine to goddess Pattini on either side were later added to the main structure.


Inside, the mundane and the divine merge, human obeisance of great proportion, summoning the celestial for fortune and good luck. Everyone, including miners and merchants, who invoke the blessings of God Saman at the devalaya are in surrender before the divine seeking all malefic influences to be vanquished and life restored to its fullest.

Away from the fluidity of the town, sheltered within a serene environment, the Sabaragamu Maha Saman Devalaya was receiving devotees bearing offerings 
of fruit.


Built during the reign of King Parakramabahu II (1236-70) of Dambadeniya, the kingdom having come upon hard times, Arya Kamadeva, a minister of the king, had visited the Saman Viharaya in Ratnapura and upon seeing the image of god Saman had made a vow to build a devalaya, if he was able to find gems to fill the reserves of the kingdom. The devalaya that stands today is in fulfilment of that vow, and despite experiencing Dutch invasion and the sanctity of the place derided by the invaders, the shrine has remained resilient, being restored during the Kandy era and continues to receive the utmost munificence of the people of Ratnapura.


The statue of god Sumana Saman is ritually carried each year, signalling the start of the pilgrimage season to Adam's Peak. His generosity is celebrated with gratitude by this ‘gem country' with a lavish street parade in September and it is ensured that the shrine and its vicinity remain in good stead for future generations.


Back on the street, our next stop was perhaps at one of the most unusual setups - a gem market, where several people were buying and selling precious stones in the open. The gem market is a dedicated open space on the side of the road to sell, buy and bargain for precious stones. Open from seven in the morning until around two in the afternoon, all were gathered to make their fortune. For them it's all about being in the right place at the right time.

For them it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.


Not far from the gem market, facing the main road is a Dutch Fort that hardly captures the attention of passers-by. This relic of an era seems to have fused well with the congested landscape of the township, that its story is overlooked. A flight of steps leads to the façade, which has the year 1817 engraved. According to information, this was when the British captured the bastion from the Dutch. A fort had been originally built by the Portuguese in the 15th century, which had been destroyed by one of the local kings, subsequently the Dutch built a new fort atop a hillock. Old Dutch architecture remains in the buildings inside, which have been used as offices. Tunnels that were part of the complex have been closed. The stone rampart still remains, with evidence of restoration work being done.


Gemstone mines are set amidst lush green fields and inside dense vegetation, but work is hard where men go down to a depth of about 15 feet or more to dig out mud and silt onto the surface. Of course a visit into a pit is only for the intrepid, as the only way of transport in and out is through a rope. On the other hand, watching men meticulously wash the gravel to spot that special stone will be thrilling, and with some help from them, visitors too could receive a hands-on-experience by patiently washing the gravel.


Ratnapura is blessed with beautiful waterfalls set amidst fertile greenery and the Rajanawa Ella in Marapana is a journey of discovery amidst shallow waters and over smooth rocks. The surrounding was so peaceful that one could spend time in reflection listening to the gurgling sound of the flowing water, but the most breath-taking discovery was ahead, the waterfall dropping into a beautiful pool below. As Rajanawa Ella is set away from human habitation, it still retained the beauty of nature's generous blessings.

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    Devotees attending the Devalaya tie a coin seeking fulfilment of a vow

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    God Sumana Saman

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    A makeshift stall with fruits to be offered to the deity

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    Gem Market under the Bo tree is a busy spot in Ratnapura

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    Precious gems purchased from the gem miners

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    A gemstone miner at work

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    Cascading beauty – Rajanawa Ella

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    Remnants of the Dutch Fort atop a hillock

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