Pearl Formation

By Jheri St. James

In ancient times, Sri Lanka was known by a variety of names: Greeks called it Taprobane; Arabs referred to it as Serendib (origin of word “serendipity”); Portuguese gave it the name Ceilâo when they arrived in 1505, which was transliterated into English as Ceylon. The current name is derived from Sanskrit word lamka, meaning “resplendent land,” which was also the name of the island as described in the ancient Indian epics Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Lanka was created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma for Kubera, the treasurer of the Gods. English historian James Emerson Tennent theorized that Galle, a southern city, was the ancient seaport of Tarshish from which King Solomon is said to have drawn ivory, peacocks, pearls and other valuables. The main written accounts of the country’s history are the Buddhist chronicles of Mahavansa and Dipavamsa.

(Buddha at Mihintale)

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon before 1972. An island nation in South Asia, it is located about 19.3 miles off the southern coast of India. Popularly referred to as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” it is home to around 20 million people. Because of its location in the path of major sea routes, Sri Lanka is a strategic naval link between West and South-East Asia and has been a center of Buddhist religion and culture from ancient times. Today, the country is multi-religious and multi-ethnic with nearly a third of the population following faiths other than Buddhism—Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The ethnic minority population includes Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim Moors and Malays, and the Burghers. Famous for the production and export of tea, coffee, rubber and coconuts, Sri Lanka boasts a progressive and modern industrial economy and the highest per capita income in South Asia. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka’s tropical forests, beaches and landscapes, as well as its rich cultural heritage, make it a world famous tourist destination. Seven sites are listed as World Heritage treasures by UNESCO. They are:

The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa: The second capital of Sri Lanka from 993. Besides Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas, it enbraces the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century.

The Ancient City of Sigiriya: The ruins of the capital built by King Kassapa I (477-95) lie on the “Lion’s Rock” at the summit of a granite peak 370 miles high, and dominates the jungle on all sides. A series of galleries and staircases emerges from the mouth of a gigantic lion constructed of bricks and plaster.

Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications: The best example of a Portuguese fortified city built in the 16th century by Europeans in South and South-East Asia, showing the interaction of European and South Asian architectural and traditions.

Golden Temple of Dambulla: A sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist mural paintings are of particular importance as are the 157 statues.

Sacred City of Anuradhapura: Established around a cutting from the “Tree of Enlightenment,” the Buddha’s fig tree, brought there in the 3rd century B.C. by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. Anuradhapura, a Ceylonese political and religious capital that flourished for 1,300 years, was abandoned after an invasion in 993. Hidden away in dense jungle for many years, the splendid site, with palaces, monasteries and monuments is accessible once again.

Sacred City of Kandy: Popularly known as the Senkadagalapura, this was the last capital of the Sinhala kings whose patronage enabled the Dinahala culture to flourish for more than 2,500 years until the occupation of Sri Lanka by the British in 1815. It is also the site of the Temple of the tooth Relic (the sacred tooth of the Buddha), which is a famous pilgrimage site.

Sinjaraja Forest Reserve The last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of its trees are endemic and many are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife—birds, mammals and butterflies—as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.



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But all is not necessarily sweet in Kandy, as this excerpt from a news release shows:
“COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan security forces defused three suspected Tamil Tiger rebel bombs on Sunday, including one in the ancient central hill capital of Kandy where thousands of people were attending a Buddhist pageant.”
The New York Times’ headlines about Sri Lanka were similarly bleak:

“Bombings Mar Sri Lanka’s 60th Anniversity of Statehood”
“11 Killed in Suicide Attack in Sri Lanka”
“Sri Lankan Blast Kills an Official”
“Sri Lankans Kill 36 Rebels as Monitors Begin Pullout”
“Attacks in Sri Lanka”
“Bomb at a Sri Lankan Department Store Kills 17”
“Political Leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers Killed in Airstrike”
“Sri Lanka Admits More Damage by Rebel Raid”
“Sri Lanka Says it Captured Rebel Naval Base”
“Military Clashes with Insurgents in Sri Lanka”
“Questions Remain on Massacre in Sri Lanka”
“Sri Lanka’s Scars Trace Lines of War Without End”
“Sri Lanka Human Rights Panel is Criticized”
Sri Lanka Army Kills 30 Rebels in Jungle Battle in the East”
Court Blocks Sri Lanka’s Effort to Expel Tamils from Capital”

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The earth upon which Sri Lanka sits is of course exempt from the various surface dramatics of mankind. This teardrop-shaped island consists mostly of flat to rolling coastal plains, with mountains rising only in the south-central part. The Mahaweli and other major rivers provide fresh water to the people. Sri Lanka’s climate can be described as tropical, and quite hot. The rainfall pattern is influenced by the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal which, when they encounter the slopes of the central highlands, unload heavy rains on the mountain slopes and southwestern sector of the island. Periodic squalls occur and sometimes tropical cyclones bring overcast skies and heavy rains to portions of the island. Among the trees of the dry-land forests some are valuable species, such as satinwood, ebony, ironwood, mahogany and teak. In the wet zone, the dominant vegetation is a tropical evergreen forest with tall trees, broad foliage and a dense undergrowth of vines and creepers.

Forests at one time covered nearly the entire island, but by the late 20th century forests declined, thereby threatening various species of wildlife. Thus, Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to establish a wildlife sanctuary. Among them, the Ruhunu National Park in the southeast protects herds of elephants, deer and peacocks, and the Wilpattu National Park in the northwest preserves the habitats of many water birds such as storks, pelicans, ibis, and spoonbills. During the Mahaweli Ganga Program of the 1970’s and 80’s in northern Sri Lanka, the government set aside four areas of land (370 sq. mi.) as national parks and the island has three biosphere reserves. The national flower of Sri Lanka is Nil Manel; the national tree is Mesua nagassarium; and the national bird is the Sri Lanka Junglefowl, endemic to the country.

Esala Perahera is the grand festival of Esala held in Sri Lanka. It is very grand with elegant costumes. Held in July or August in Kandy, it has become a unique symbol of Sri Lanka. It is a Buddhist festival consisting of dances and richly-decorated elephants. There are fire-dances, whip-dances, Kandian dances and various other cultural dances. The elephants are usually adorned with lavish garments.

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(Galle Face Green in Daylight)

Galle Face Green was the location of the soil collection in Sri Lanka, pictured above (Photo: Brian McMorrow). This promenade stretches for half a kilometer along the coast in the heart of the financial and business district of Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka. Originally laid out in 1859 by the British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry Ward, Galle Face Green was also used for horse racing. This area is now the largest open space in Colombo, and a popular destination for children, vendors, teenagers, lovers, merry makers and all those who want to indulge in their favorite pastimes next to the sea under the open sky. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, the land is busy with dry trippers, picnickers and food vendors. There are two large hotels that border the strip and the Galle Face Green is administered and maintained by the Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka. We thank Paul Neville, of the U.S. Embassy’s American Center on Galle Road, for his efforts to enhance our soil collection with soil from such an historic and lovely spot in Sri Lanka; also for facilitating the collection from The Maldives.

Terry J. White of the U.S. Embassy in Maldives is the gentleman who replied to our request for the peace word in Sri Lanka. Here is what he had to say:

“There are two vernacular languages used in Sri Lanka: Sinhala, a mostly Sanskrit-derived language (though with influences from Malay, Arabic and others) and Tamil, a Dravidian language. In fact, language issues - mainly the hegemony of Sinhala over Tamil, even in Tamil-majority areas - are among the fundamental grievances at the core of the ethnic conflict here, though many of the most egregious of them have been addressed since more or less sustained serious violence broke out nearly a quarter century ago. So while you can, indeed, say "peace" in Sri Lanka and be generally understood, you would also be wise to say "saamaya" to a Sinhala speaker or "samaadhaanam" to a Tamil speaker.

“I have attached a document showing how each word is written in its respective native script. I had originally intended to have it printed, but it got too complicated to arrange that and put it together quickly with the resources I had at hand, so it's hand-written (and not very legible, sorry.)”

(Galle Face Green at Night)

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Sri Lanka, like most of the soil locations in the Common Ground 191 collection, is a study in contrasts—cultural heritage and warfare; natural beauty and ecological threats; the past, the present and the future. The story of all man’s activities on earth can be read like Zen koan (a kind of spiritual poem), or seen as the contrast between a black pearl in a white shell.

Pearls are formed by the irritation of a microscopic object being trapped within the mollusk’s mantle folds. The finest quality pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries, and the word “pearl” has become a metaphor for something rare, fine and admirable. True iridescent pearls, the most desirable pearls, are produced by only two groups of mulluscan bivalves or clams; the sea and river species. All the rest are cultured, manmade. So in Sri Lanka, the irritation of some of the political and military issues within the folds of the cherished soil of this tear-shaped island, the site of some of King Solomon’s treasures, this “Resplendent Land”, may continue to provide the world with the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

(A black pearl and a shell of the black-lipped pearl oyster.)






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