Joining the ranks of pilgrims climbing up the slopes of Sri Lanka’s most sacred peak rewards one with an early morning knock on heaven’s door
It’s pitch black and we are walking inside a snake of lights, crawling up the dark mountain slope. Passing under the arched tips of its neon-light vertebrae, we scratch the insides of its belly with the light beams of our torches. Step after step, this ancestral reptile moves sinuously until its flickering body hits another bend and twists again, forever upwards in the night.
I’ve tackled quite a few mountains in my life—from the brown, flat headed giants embracing their knees atop China’s plains, to the pointy fellows holding each other’s hands before the entrance of Eden in the Annapurna region of Nepal. More challenging mountains, yes, but haunted by less solemn spirits. Here in the deep south of Sri Lanka, by contrast, pilgrims respect their gods so much they walk barefoot on the peak’s cold stone steps. All around us, women’s bangles tinkle against tired ankles, and maroon swaths of monks pull their robes over their shoulders to shield themselves from the mountain’s frostbite. All together, we go up silently towards the summit, to the place they call Adam’s Peak. But most importantly, this is Sri Pada, home of the ‘Sacred Footprint’, and the main reason for our spiralling ever upwards.
At 2,243 meters, Adam’s Peak is one of Sri Lanka’s highest mountains and lies among the southern Central Highlands of the Ratnapura district in the Sabaragamuwa province, 150 km east of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo. It rises like a green fang from a carpet of dense forest reserve where it is said that wild elephants and leopards still dwell. Besides flocks of clouds, the peak also magnetizes thousands of pilgrims of different religions every day. In fact, the Sri Pada, a 1.8-meter-long rock formation that juts from the summit, has a mixed bag of religious meanings. Buddhists believe it is the Sacred Footprint of the Buddha, while Hindus believe it is that of Shiva. Meanwhile, to Christians and Muslims, it’s the sign of Adam’s passage on earth. Based on legends, the first person to discover the sacred footprint was King Valagambahu (104-76 BC) as he fled from marauding Cholian armies, and stumbled upon the site running after a deity disguised as stag. Marco Polo later visited—in the 14th century—reporting that his ascent was “extremely arduous”.
Today, a stone staircase helps every Sri Lankan tackle the mountain several times during their lives. From December to April, when pilgrimage season is in full swing, the peak glows every night as if it were inhabited by thousands of fireflies. Some climb in the afternoon to reach the shrine at sundown, but the most popular and spiritual route is to ascend in the middle of the night, catching the crack of dawn as it slam-dunks a glowing ball into a sea of misty grey clouds covering the plains below.
Getting to Adam’s Peak is an act of devotion in itself. After snaking from Kandy to Hatton on a slow train through the grassy bends of unending Ceylonese tea estates, I caught a rickety bus to Dalhousie, the starting point of the 5 km Nallathanni climbing route, the shortest and most direct way to the summit. A cluster of chai stalls, homestays, and restaurants were tablecloths are never de rigueur, Dalhousie rests at the foot of the Sacred Mountain, and feels like it’s been custom-made to start the Sri Pada experience. The basic facilities available here seem perfectly attuned to the reasons of the climb, which is not leisure, but pure pilgrimage. However, travellers can find shelter in a cluster of simple but cozy guesthouses manned by gregarious locals who have decided to squeeze a little profit from the nearby sacred peak.
I’m out of bed and standing in the cold by 3am, since dawn breaks at 6:30am, and the climb can take from two-and-a-half to four hours. I follow groups of pilgrims in white dothis and sarees who lead me through the dark and to the beginning of the incline, almost 2 km into the ascent.
“Each time feels like the first,” says Saman, a slender man from a village near Bentota. He and his wife are at their fifth climb, and today they are accompanying their six year-old son for his first ascent. Before the path starts rising, a monk from the nearby Japanese temple comes forward for an offer and a blessing, and ties a white string around my waist. With the eye of one of Sri Pada’s benevolent Gods upon me, I proceed upwards as the incline slowly turns into a stone staircase. Sleepy people buried under mounds of blankets are waiting under the neon lights set at the sides of the path to keep darkness at bay. They outstretch their arms, holding pans filled with soul soothing chai over portable gas stoves. Cups, even on a sacred mountain, have the inflated prices of tourism’s gold rush.
The peak itself comes into view when we are a couple of hours into the climb. Very few of the humans we meet along the staircase are heading down. The faces of the people are still, their mouths zipped up and their eyes pointed to the trail ahead as they shiver surrounded by pitch black. The darkness starts dispersing in tones of blue as the path becomes one with the rock of the peak, and handle bars appear to help us all pull ourselves upwards and finally to the top.
The arrival is surreal. Just before the night shatters like a broken mirror in cracks of burning red, we exit from the snaking trail head crossing a melee of shoes abandoned right before the Sacred Shrine’s platform, a high-altitude marble-floored island filled with a revolving of pilgrims. They walk in circles, reciting mantras, queuing up to pray before the Sacred Footprint. On the edge of the slope, young monks in woollen hats hold their robes tight under their chins with frosty fingers, waiting for the beauty of the sun’s first kick into a new day. With a glowing shrine and the sound of tolling bells behind my back, I join the line and watch thirsty clouds dripping gold over the goose bumps of central Sri Lanka’s back, stretching below us towards the horizon. As I gulp in awe, my tired legs stop aching. The spectacle makes us all forget that we will have to return to Earth, at some point.
Two daily trains leave from Kandy to Hatton. Number 1005 departs at 8:47am and arrives at 11:12am, while number 1015 leaves at 11:10am and arrives at 1:26pm. From Hatton’s train station, buses depart to Dalhousie until 3pm. During pilgrimage season, direct buses go to Dalhousie from Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. However, the scenic train route across the Hill Country is a highly recommended way to reach the sacred peak.
Photos by Chan Kit Yeng