In late May, another pilgrimage season came to an end at one of Sri Lanka’s highest points. Tens of thousands of pilgrims, the very old and the very young, make the journey each year. Most of them climb at night up an illuminated staircase. Refreshments stalls and resting places make the climb easier, though the sacred atmosphere is marred (for some) by the sound of radios carried by young people, and litter is liberally scattered. During the months outside the pilgrimage season the mountain is bleak and rains make the trail treacherous.
Being only 2243 metres high, Sri Pada is not very tall as mountains go. Yet as you approach it from certain angles it appears much higher. Such is its imposing location and angular shape that devotees of a proto-religion invested it with sacred power, perhaps because of the foot-like indentation at the summit. Several millennia ago, these early islanders made it the residence of Saman, one of the four guardian deities of the island, and called it Samanelakhanda (‘Saman’s mountain’).
Sri Pada is the most important religious geographic entity in Sri Lanka. Apart from being its most dramatic mountain, which in the past provided mariners with the important first sighting of the island from the west, it is considered sacred by adherents of the island’s four major religions. The summit becomes the focal point of an annual pilgrimage (some of the pilgrims from India and beyond) during a season that begins in December, peaks in March and continues until the Buddhist Vesak festival in May. As the Venerable S Dhammika, an Australian monk, asserts, ‘Mount Sinai was considered sacred at a much earlier date, Mount Fuji surpasses it in beauty and height, and Mount Kailash evokes a far greater sense of mystery. Nevertheless, no other mountain has been revered by so many people, from such a variety of religions, for so many centuries, as Sri Pada has.’
It appears the mountain became a place of pilgrimage for people of many faiths during the 11th century. Buddhists began to refer to the mountain as Sri Pada (‘Sacred footprint’), maintaining that Siddhartha Gautama visited it and left his footprint on the pinnacle boulder. Hindus called the peak Shivan Adi Patham (‘Creative dance of Shiva’), as they felt that the footprint symbolised Lord Shiva’s dance. Muslims believed that after Adam was expelled from Paradise he landed on the summit; the depression is thought to be where Adam stood, on one foot, in expiation for an age. Sometime later, Roman Catholics asserted that the footprint was that of Saint Thomas, the early Christian apostle who supposedly preached in South India.
In Sanskrit, according to the Venerable S Dhammika, Sri Pada is called Mount Lanka, Ratnagiri (‘Mountain of gems’) or Mount Rohana. This last is derived from Ruhunu, the name of the southwestern district where Sri Pada is situated. In Tamil literature it is known as Svargarohanam (‘The ascent to heaven’), while the English called it Adam’s Peak. Dhammika reports that Sri Pada figures in several notable works of Sanskrit literature:
The Anargharaghava, a 9th century retelling of the Ramayana, has Rama in his magic chariot flying back to Ayudha pointing towards the south and saying to Sita, ‘There appears the view of the Island of Simhala, a blue lotus arising from the ocean, made even more beautiful by the filaments of the Mount of Jewels’ … The Rajataragani, written in Kashmir in the 11th century, includes a tale about the mythological King Meghavahana who came to Sri Lanka to receive homage from Vibhisana the lord of the Raksasas and then climbed Sri Pada … In the Tamil epic Manimekela one character describes her pilgrimage to Sri Lanka ‘where stands the lofty Mount Samanta, on whose summit are the footprints of the Buddha, that ship of righteousness for traversing the ocean of birth and death’.
In the realm of legend, Sindbad the Sailor visited Serendib during his ‘Sixth’ and ‘Seventh Wonderful Voyages’, contained in the 1001 Arabian Nights, and ascended Sri Pada:
This mountain is conspicuous for a distance of three days. As it was the place where Adam was banished out of paradise, I had the curiosity to ascend to its summit and solace myself with a view of its marvels, which are indescribable. Here are found rubies and many precious things, and rare plants grow abundantly, with spice trees and cocoa palms.
An early factual account of an ascent of Sri Pada is given by Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan Berber, Islamic scholar and adventurous traveller, who visited the island during the 14th century:
This mountain of Serendib is one of the largest in the world: we saw it from the open sea, when we were distant from it upwards of nine days. While we were making the ascent, we saw the clouds passing between the foot and us. There are upon this mountain many trees of kinds that do not cast their leaves, flowers of diverse colours and a red rose as large as the palm of the hand [rhododendron]. There are two roads on the mountain leading to the Foot of Adam. The one is known by the name of the Father’s Path and the other by the name of the Mother’s Path. The Mother’s Path is an easy one, and by it the pilgrims return; but anyone who took it for the ascent would be regarded as if he had not made the pilgrimage at all. The Father’s Path is rough, and difficult of ascent.
Ratnapura, Sri Lanka’s major gem-mining centre, is the starting point for the Father’s Path, the arduous route, 25 km by foot, through a tea estate. The more leisurely Mother’s Path, which begins at a higher elevation and is only 7km in length, is reached from the town of Maskeliya. There are many of descriptions of the Father’s Path, but none as attractive as that in the novel Dead Man’s Rock (1887) by ‘Q’ (Arthur Quiller-Couch), which concerns the quest for the legendary Great Ruby of Ceylon. This quest brings the hero of the tale to Ratnapura and thence to Adam’s Peak:
It was after we left Ratnapoora that I first realised the true wonders of this land. Our road rose almost continuously by narrow tracks, which in some places, owing to the late heavy rains, were almost impassable. We plunged into a tangled forest, so dense as almost to blot out the light of day. Where the sun’s rays penetrated, myriads of brilliant insects flashed like jewels; yellow butterflies, beetles with wings of ruby-red or gold, and dragonflies that picked out the undergrowth with fire.
In 1849, the time in which this part of the story is set, the journey to Sri Pada was a hazardous affair, and the ascent of the mountain by Europeans still relatively uncommon. In fact, the first European to climb Sri Pada was a Lieutenant Malcolm of the 1st Ceylon Regiment, who reached the summit in 1816.
Up from the abyss
While ascending Sri Pada, pilgrims follow a number of unique traditions. For instance, it is customary for a first-time climber to wear a turban of white cloth. On both main routes, the nidika tupana (‘place of the needle’) demands that devotees stop and fling a threaded needle into a shrub by the side of the path, marking the spot where the Buddha is said to have paused to mend a tear in his robe.
One well-documented natural aspect of the pilgrimage season is the clouds of magnificent yellow butterflies, colloquially called samanalayo. These appear annually (although in recent years in fewer numbers) and converge from every direction towards the holy mountain, only to die upon the lower slopes. These insects play a role in Arthur C Clarke’s classic novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979). Set in ‘Taprobane’ during the 22nd century, the novel concerns the construction of a space elevator linked to a geostationary satellite some 36,000 km above the equator. However, the only suitable launching point on Earth is the summit of Sri Kanda – Sri Pada – on which, naturally, is situated a Vihara, a Buddhist temple, inhabited by monks opposed to the plan.
While driving away from an abortive meeting with the monks, the instigator of the project, Dr Vannevar Morgan, encounters a swarm of samanalayo. His driver asks him whether he knows about ‘the legend’. ‘Every year, around this time, they head for the Mountain, and they all die on its lower slopes,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you’ll meet them halfway up the cable ride, but that’s the highest they get. Which is lucky for the Vihara … If they ever reach it the monks will have to leave. That’s the prophecy.’ When Morgan attempts a demonstration, a monk (and former astrophysicist) at the Vihara disrupts the experiment by creating a hurricane using a hijacked satellite that controls the weather. In so doing, he inadvertently blows the butterflies to the summit of Sri Kanda – thus fulfilling the prophecy and forcing the monks to leave the mountain. In this way, the butterflies make it possible for the elevator to be constructed.
Pilgrims travelling by night reach the Buddhist temple at the summit by dawn, where a bell clangs unceasingly as it is reverently tolled by all to signify a pilgrimage completed. The sunrise produces the famous spectacle of the shadow of the peak. The northeast winds that blow in the pilgrimage season pile up a layer of misty cloud a thousand feet below the summit. Over this the sun casts the vast, triangular shadow of the summit pyramid. At first the point of this shadow lies upon the distant horizon; then, as the sun waxes, it races backward, foreshortening the shadow until it is swallowed altogether in the rock of the peak itself.
Even if you do not climb Sri Pada and therefore miss the shadow of the peak, there is plenty to admire about the mountain from its base. As ‘Q’ asserts: ‘Truly this is a most marvellous mountain, and its effect upon me I find hard to put into words. Today I watched it standing solitary and royal … At its feet waved a sea of green forest, around its summit were gathered black clouds charged with lightning … Even as I write, its unmoved face is mocking the fire of heaven.’
~ Richard Boyle is a Contributing Editor at Himal