A hard slog up the slopes of Sri Lanka’s most sacred peak rewards pilgrims and travellers with a morning knock on Heaven’s door.
By Marco Ferrarese/ Photos Chan Kit Yeng
Crawling up this dark mountain slope, we all become part of a snake of lights. Step after step, the reptile moves sinuously, its flickering body hits bend after bend, twisting forever upwards. I’ve tackled more challenging mountains in my life but none was haunted by such solemn spirits. Ahead of me, pilgrims slog up barefoot in the cold of night. Women’s bangles tickle against tired ankles as swaths of maroon robes protect monks’ shaven heads from the frosty bites of night. We are all silently ascending to the peak they call Adam’s. But most importantly, this is Sri Pada, home to the Sacred Footprint, and main reason of our visit.
At 2243 meters, Adam’s Peak is one of Sri Lanka’s highest mountains. 150km east of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, it rises like a green fang from a viridian carpet where wild elephants and leopards dwell. Besides flocks of clouds, the peak attracts thousands of pilgrims daily. The Sri Pada, a 1.8m-long rock formation jutting from the summit, has a mixed bag of religious meanings: Buddhists believe it to be the Sacred Footprint of the Buddha, while Hindus that of Shiva’s.
To Christians and Muslims, it’s the sign of Adam’s passage. Myth says that the first person to discover the Footprint was King Valagambahu (104-76 BC): fleeing from marauding Cholian armies, he stumbled upon it running after a deity disguised as stag. Marco Polo visited in the 14th century, reporting that his ascent was extremely arduous.
Today, a stone staircase helps every Sri Lankan tackle the peak several times during their lives. From December to April, every night the mountain glows in full pilgrimage swing. Some climb in the afternoon to reach the top 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 burning planet into a sea of misty grey clouds.
I caught the rickety bus to Dalhousie, starting point of the 5-km Nallathanni route, the shortest way to the summit. The basic facilities on offer here seem perfectly attuned to the reasons of the climb, which is not leisure, but pure pilgrimage.
I’m out of bed and standing in the cold at 3 a.m. to start the three-hour ascent. Groups of pilgrims in white dothis and sarees lead me through the dark and to the beginning of the incline, almost two kilometers 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, the first with their 6-year-old son. A monk from the Japanese temple that guards the start of the ascent comes forward to offer a blessing, tying a white string around my waist. With the eye of one of Sri Pada’s benevolent Gods on me, I proceed upwards as the incline slowly turns into a stone staircase. Sleepy mounds of blankets sprout under the neon lights illuminating the sides of the path. Their outstretched hands hold pans filled with soul-soothing chai over portable gas stoves.
The peak itself comes into view a couple hours into the climb. Very few of the humans we cross are heading down: their mouths are zipped up like aluminium flies, eyes pointed to the trail ahead, as they shiver in pitch black. The darkness starts fading to blue tones when the path becomes one with the peak, and handlebars appear to help us pull upwards and reach the top. Arriving is surreal: just before the night shatters in cracks of burning red, we walk across a circle of shoes that surround the Sacred Shrine’s platform.
It looks like an island of serenity floating above a sea of rubber and leather. Pilgrims walk in circles, reciting mantras as they queue up to get their opportunity to venerate the Sacred Footprint. Whatever God it belongs to doesn’t matter. Buddhists, Hindus and Christians stay together, rubbing elbows to keep the frost at bay and waiting for the sun’s good morning kiss.
On the edge of the slope, young monks in woollen hats hold their robes tight under their chins with clenched, cold fingers. They wait to take in all the beauty of a new day’s kicking birth. With the shrine glowing and the sound of bells tolling behind me, I join the line and observe thirsty clouds absorb shades of gold and deep red over the goose bumps of central Sri Lanka’s back. Gulping in awe, my tired legs stop aching. The spectacle makes us all forget that at some point we will have to return down to Earth.