The Gemstone Legends of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Photo © EraGem Photo © EraGem

by Angela Magnotti Andrews

Sindbad's Sixth Voyage

A discussion about Ceylon's gemstone legends would not be complete without a brief account of Sindbad's journey to Ceylon. Adrift at sea after veering off course, Sindbad and his sixth voyage traveling companions despaired of surviving. The ship's captain raked desperate fingers through his thick beard and announced, "Of all the places we could find ourselves, it is here in this 'the most dangerous spot upon the whole wide sea' {2}. Here, a current too swift will surely carry us to our destruction."

Though the ship did run aground, Fortune smiled upon the shipwrecked passengers who escaped to shore with their lives and their provisions. Met with the grim skeletons of the many shipwrecked sailors before them, their hearts were comforted not at all by the sight of craggy hills strewn with "vast quantities of the costliest merchandise, and treasures" {2}.

As the days wore on, Fortune turned her back upon the stranded sailors. The looming mountain, which spanned the entire coastline, proved a forbidding barrier. Its crystalline slopes, brilliant with the blue of sapphire and the red of rubies, were completely impassible. The only river ran against the grain; drawing from the sea, it flowed into the bowels of a dark and imposing cave into the belly of the mountain. After days on end with no hope of escape,their gaunt and hope-starved bodies began to fall one by one upon the sands of this unforgiving shore.

Soon enough, only Sindbad remained. He dug himself a grave, purposing to die without a fight. In the midst of hopeless and condemning thoughts, a ray of light shone--one possibility sparked hope. Riding the wave of courage that comes with insight, the weary traveler fashioned a raft which would carry him into the bowels of the mountain upon the waters of the mysterious river.

"If I make myself a raft, and leave myself to the current, [the river] will bring me to some inhabited country, or drown me. If I be drowned I lose nothing, but only change one kind of death for another; and if I get out of this fatal place, I shall not only avoid the sad fate of my comrades, but perhaps find some new occasion of enriching myself. Who knows but fortune waits...to compensate my shipwreck with interest?" {10}.

Sindbad set sail on his makeshift raft into the mouth of the monstrous mountain. After several days of pitch-black travel, he ate his last morsel of food. Empty of hope, he lay upon his many treasures lining the surface of his raft and fell into a deep and troubled sleep.

He awoke disoriented, surrounded by a group of astonished merchants native to the beautiful island of Serendib (Ceylon). After hearing his adventurous tale, the merchants ushered him into the presence of their king. His tale captivated the king, who sent Sindbad on his way with vast treasures and a gift for Caliph Haroun Alraschid.

Ceylon: The Pearl of India

Sindbad appears to be among the first of many travelers to write of Ceylon's many splendors, but he wasn't the last. An Officer writing in the late 1800s described the "land of the sapphire and the hyacinth, the ruby and the pearl," the "island of gems...[and] rubies," and "the pearl on the brow of India" {1}. Others have written of the hint of cinnamon that permeates the air and the mighty elephants and lush jungles that populate the island.

Medieval writers laud Ceylon's proximity to heaven and the prerogative of God, who took "pleasure in enriching it with the earth's choicest treasures" {1}. European writers glorify the many rivers and springs, the diversity of hills and plains, and the island's abundant resources: Fruit and cinnamon trees, metals and jewels, and fowl and beast {1}.

Among these varied accounts, two overarching similarities emerge: (1) Various Tales of Adam's Peak, and (2) The Gemstone Legends of Ceylon.

Various Tales of Adam's Peak

A Grand Physical Marvel

Maturin Ballou, writing in the 1890s, details his first glimpse of the mountains of Ceylon:

Thus the night passed, and the big red globe of the sun came up out of the sea to the eastward, as though it had been sleeping submerged there since it bade us good-night in the west at twilight. Adam's Peak, in the shape of a perfect cone, had been in view from the deck since the break of day, half lost in the far-away sky. In clear weather, this famous elevation can be seen sixty miles off shore of the island. The height of the mountain, and its looming form, at first produces the effect of a mountain rising abruptly from out of the perfect level of the waves... {p. 12}

Once upon the shores, Sr. Ballou describes Adam's Peak, which measures over 7,000 feet: "This is a lonely elevation, springing abruptly into a sharp cone from the bosom of the low hills which surround it, and out of a wilderness of tropical jungle. Few mountains of its height require more persistent effort to reach the apex" {p. 26}.

Thousands of tourists and pilgrims flock to Adam's Peak annually. Tourists ascend the peak at certain times of the year to witness a grand physical marvel. According to Maturin Ballou, a traveler standing on Adam's Peak at daybreak will see as the sun rises from the east the sudden appearance in the western sky of "the vast reflex of the peak, as clearly defined as though a second and precisely similar mountain were actually there" {p. 27}.

Furthermore, the city of Colombo, at least 50 miles away, can be seen distinctively as though through the lens of a telescope. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the images fade and the western sky becomes "suffused with the waking and regal glow of the morning" {p. 28}.

Religious Fervor

The pilgrims, however smitten they may be by such a glorious view, come for other reasons entirely. Indeed, there is perhaps no other mountain on earth which lays claim to such religious fervor by so many different faiths. Devout followers of every major world religion visit Adam's Peak throughout the year, though primarily in the month of April.

They come to pay homage to Buddha, Shiva, Adam, or Adambaba, believing that by climbing the arduous peak they will be forgiven all their sins. Hindus, Muslims, and Judeo-Christians all subscribe to the story that the mountain became sacred when "the first father of mankind" {11} landed on the peak after his banishment from Paradise.

Details of the death-defying climb to the top are abundant in the bibliography included at the end of this article, as are the numerous legends of the first man and first woman after their fall.

Legends of Mankind's First Parents

Though the legends of mankind's first parents vary with some significance, especially across the different religions, several main themes emerge: (1) This first man is said to have left his footprint and some type of dwelling (or burial) place where a temple now resides. (2) The first woman's cries from a distant peak in Jeddah rode the wings of the east wind to Adam's Peak, while the first man's cries of sorrow were carried to Jeddah on the west wind. (3) Both the first man and the first woman cried copious tears, and these tears transformed into miraculous wonders.

In nearly every account, whether directly connected to the legends or not, the gemstones of Ceylon are mentioned. Rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls, and even diamonds are said to be found in great numbers on the pristine island. While diamonds are not indigenous to the land, there is no argument that Ceylon is rich in precious gemstones. And where gemstones abound, so one will find a profusion of legends.

The Gemstone Legends of Ceylon

The Splendor of the King of Serendib

Sindbad stands among the greatest gemstone collectors of all time. His travels always ended with the acquisition of tremendous treasure, and his sixth voyage was no exception.

In the Mobi Classics version of the explorer's sixth voyage, we read: "I had the curiosity to ascend to its very summit, for this was the place to which Adam was banished out of Paradise. Here are found rubies and many precious things, and rare plants grow abundantly, with cedar trees and cocoa palms. On the seashore and at the mouths of the rivers the divers seek for pearls, and in some valleys diamonds are plentiful" {2}.

In Ernest Rhys's 1907 edition of the Tales of the Arabian Nights, Sindbad delivers the king's letter to Caliph Haroun Alraschid. The letter opens with the following greeting: "The king of the Indies [Serendib/Ceylon], before whom march a hundred elephants, who lives in a palace that shines with a hundred thousand rubies, and who has in his treasury twenty thousand crowns enriched with diamonds, to Caliph Haroun Alraschid..." {p. 113}.

Accompanying the letter was a gift to the Caliph of "first, one single ruby made into a cup, about half a foot high, an inch thick, and filled with round pearls. Secondly, the skin of a serpent, whose scales were as large as an ordinary piece of gold, and had the virtue to preserve from sickness those who lay upon it. Thirdly, fifty thousand drachms of the best wood of aloes, with thirty grains of camphor as big as big as pistachios. And fourthly, a she-slave of ravishing beauty, whose apparel was covered all over with jewels" {11}.

The Riches of Ceylon

Sindbad was not the only one to set eyes upon the riches of Ceylon. Duarte Barbosa describes the abundance of stones he saw in Ceylon during his travels in the early 1900s {7}:

In this island also are found precious stones in plenty of various kinds, and also many lapidaries, who are skilled to such an extent, that if one should bring one of them a handful of earth in which precious stones were mixed he would say at once 'There are rubies in this hand or sapphires in that.' And in the same manner when they see the ruby or other stones they say 'This must be kept for so many hours in the fire,' and it will turn out very clear and good. {p. 115-116}

The Officer of the Ceylon Rifles quotes Purchas in his 'Pilgrimage' {1}: 'The heauens with their dewes, the ayre with a pleasant holesomeness and fragrant freshnesse, the waters in their many riuers and fountaines, the earth diuersified in aspiring hills, lowly vales, equal and indifferent plaines, filled in her inward chambers with metals and jewels, in her outward court and upper face stored with whole woods of the best cinnamon that the sunne seeth, besides fruits, oranges, leimons, etc., surmounting those of Spain..." {p. 3}.

The Precious Stones of Ceylon

Continuing in similar fashion, Mansel Longworth Dames, who edited the volumes written by Duarte Barbosa, relates the following in a note to the text:

"The precious stones of Ceylon, though not now considered to be of the highest quality, were far-famed in ancient days, and its pearl fisheries were also believed to be the most productive in the world.

"The Periplus...says that the island of Palaesimoundou produces pearls and transparent stones. Ptolemy and Pliny both mention precious stones and pearls as produced in Taprobane [Ceylon], but their information appears to be derived mainly from Megasthenes, and is not therefore contemporary.

"...in the third century BC Ceylon had the reputation of producing gems...Ptolemy mentions beryls and hyacinths among its products. Fah-Hian, the Buddhist pilgrim from China, found that the country produced precious stones and pearls...

"Moses of Chorene, in the 5th century, also alludes to the gems of Ceylon....Alberuni (I, p.211) alludes to the pearl fishery...Rashid-u'd-din reports that rubies and other precious stones were found in Ceylon (Sarandip)...

"In the 13th and 14th centuries the Chinese chronicles report the despatch of embassies to Ceylon to collect gems and drugs...Ibn Batuta...[reported]...rubies or carbuncles, being found in all the waters of the gulf and others in the earth. Some were red, some yellow, and some blue. The king had a right to all gems worth 100 fanams...He also speaks of the great abundance of gems worn by the women.

"Friar Odoric, at about the same time, speaks of the collection of gems by the poor in the water of a certain leech-infested swamp...and also speaks of the finding of rubies and diamonds, although, as Yule remarks, there are no diamonds in Ceylon. Marignolli also speaks of gems being found in the waters of a pool near Adam's Peak, and mentions with disapproval the legend that they were formed from Adam's tears!" {p. 115-116, Note 1}.

Tears Become Gemstones

Mr. Dames's final words lead us now to the greatest among Ceylon's gemstone legends. As I mentioned before, most of the accounts of Ceylon include some mention of the tears shed by Adam and Eve, mankind's first parents, according to both the Muslim and Judeo-Christian religions.

Alan Walters, writing in 1892, speaks of the postulations of Sir Thomas Herbert (1606-1682), who wrote of the legend that Adam's tears over his expulsion from Paradise became gemstones. Mr. Walters also relates that Muslims also believe that the gemstones found in Ceylon were the transformed tears of mankind's first father {11}.

In a collection of Islamic stories compiled by Dr. G. Weil, we read the following:

"Adam shed such an abundance of tears that all beasts and birds satisfied their thirst therewith; but some of them sunk into the earth, and, as they still contained some of the juices of his food in Paradise, produced the most fragrant trees and spices. Eve also was desolate in Djidda, for she did not see Adam, although he was so tall that his head touched the lowest heaven, and the songs of the angels were distinctly audible to him. She wept bitterly, and her tears, which flowed into the ocean, were changed into costly pearls, while those which fell on the earth brought forth all beautiful flowers."

The Officer of the Ceylon Rifles writes, "In succeeding ages writers and travellers from all climes who have visited [Ceylon's] shores, with few exceptions, join in a chorus of praise of its natural attractions. The sides of its mountains were strewn with gems formed from the tears of Adam, and the air was perfumed with the odour of cinnamon" {p. 2-3}.

In the February 1799 edition of The London Review, Richard Hole notes that "the precious gems of Ceylon" are "[s]uppo[s]ed to proceed from a mutual effu[s]ion of tears [s]hed by Adam and Eve on their expul[s]ion from Paradi[s]e," as noted by John Mandeville {p. 106-107}. Writing in 2012, Isidore Kozminsky reports that the rubies discovered in the river beds of Ceylon are believed to be "the consolidated tears of Buddha" {9}.

I don't know about you, but all of these wonderful stories stir within my heart a longing to visit such a beautiful land.

How about it? Would you like to visit the fabled lands of Sindbad's Serendib? Would you climb the Peak which takes its name after mankind's first father? Would you go for religious reasons, or would the natural phenomenon draw you in? And what of the fabled gemstones? Do you suppose you might find the lapidaries there who could tell you if your fistful of dirt contained traces of sapphire and ruby, or possibly even a rough stone worth cutting?

Bibliography

  1. An Officer, Late of the Ceylon Rifles. Ceylon Ancient and Modern: A General Description of the Island, Historical, Physical, Statistical. First published, London: 1876. Reprint published, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1994.
  2. Anonymous. Arabian Nights Entertainments: Best-known Tales. Mobi Classics, Mobile Reference, 2010.
  3. Ballou, Maturin Murray. The Pearl of India. Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1894.
  4. Bassett, Ralph Henry. Romantic Ceylon: Its History, Legend, and Story. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1997.
  5. Blackwood's Magazine. "An Adventure in Ceylon," Museum of Literature and Science, September 1829, p. 230-233.
  6. Costa, Professor Nicholas. Adam to Apophis: Asteroids, Millenarianism and Climate Change. Cyprus: D'Aleman Publishing, 2013.
  7. Dames, Mansel Longworth, ed. Barbosa, Duarte, author. Book of Duarte Barbosa, Volume 1 New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1989.
  8. Hole, Richard, L.L.B. "Remarks on the Arabian Nights Entertainments, in which the Origin of Sindbad's Voyage, and other Oriental Fictions, is particularly con[s]idered," London Review, February 1799, p. 105-107.
  9. Kozminsky, Isidore. Crystals, Jewels, Stones: Magic & Science. Lake Worth, FL: Ibis Press/Nicholas Hays, 2012.
  10. Rhys, Ernest. Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1907 & 1910.
  11. Walters, Alan. Palms and Pearls: Or Scenes in Ceylon. Sri Lanka: Bentley, 1892.
  12. Weil, Dr. G. The Bible, The Koran, and the Talmud; or, Biblical Legends of hte Mussulmans. New York: 1863.