It’s a few minutes after midnight, and the shopkeepers are busying themselves arranging winter coats and hats; frying up samosas, chapatis, pakoras; readying their wares for the stream of pilgrims who are preparing for the long, cold journey ahead.
In the dark, we buy some provisions ourselves and take a minute to chat with the young shopkeeper. “Have you ever climbed Sri Pada?” Scott asks, motioning to the black peak looming behind us in the distance. He laughs, “No…it looks very hard, too high,” and we set off chuckling and unfazed by his warning, nibbling away at our much-needed fuel.
We’re here to climb the mountain known as Sri Pada (translating directly to “Sacred Footprint”) or “Adam’s Peak,” as it’s more commonly known in English. Sri Pada, being one of few pilgrimage sites that is revered by 4 major religions worldwide, is said to be one of the most sacred places on earth. Looming over 7,000 feet above the Sri Lankan jungle, Sri Pada’s lofty heights appear to reach up toward the heavens, its sides being nearly vertical in places. On its summit, a large “footprint” (over 5 feet long) imprinted on a boulder marks the reason for Sri Pada’s sacredness: Buddhists say it is the footprint of Lord Buddha himself, left during his third visit to Sri Lanka over 2500 years ago; Hindus say the footprint is that of Lord Shiva; Muslims and Christians claim that it is that of Adam, formed when he was sent to earth and placed in Sri Lanka, or “Eden”. (Those who are more agnostically-inclined might be interested to know that Sri Pada is also known as the place that “butterflies go to die,” meaning that, really, one of the above categories should cover just about everyone except for the very hardest of hearts…:)) Whatever the reason people have had for visiting the mountain, pilgrims from around the world have been climbing to its summit for over a thousand years, ever since the footprint was discovered in 851 AD. Since then, its fame has been carried around the planet, its summit being tackled by such famous characters as Marco Polo and Alexander The Great. Today, we’re here to do the same.
[Sri Pada in the distance:]
We’re here in the middle of Sri Pada climbing season, and everyone packed onto our train (and later, bus) on the long journey to the town of Hatton was on their way to make the arduous climb. Everyone was laughing, singing, drumming on the doors, happy to be making another pilgrimage up the sacred mountain. Although all Sri Lankans are expected to climb the mountain at least once in his or her lifetime, there is merit gained for each individual time a pilgrim reaches the summit. A man we met on the train told us that he has climbed Sri Pada three times before, but for many of the older people, it was their 10, 15, even 20th time.
After thanking the shop owner for the snacks, we begin to wind our way out of town, walking past countless brightly-lit storefronts selling everything from fake flower offerings to stuffed animals (?) to high-energy sweets and hand-sewn Santa hats (?).
At the true start of the climb, nestled at the base of the mountain, we reach a bell tower that pilgrims must ring once for each time they have made the pilgrimage to climb Sri Pada. Scott and I each ring the bell once, and we’re joined by a Buddhist monk who whispers a prayer of safety and good luck for each of us, before tying a white string around our wrists in blessing.
The climb up the mountain is gradual at first, and lights have been strung up along the trail to light our way. We pass various “pilgrim’s rest” stops, which are nothing more than a cement floor with a tin roof overhead, where hundreds of people lie on newspapers or wrapped in blankets, catching some sleep before (or after) the long climb. Others kneel in prayer in front of enormous Buddha statues or Hindu temples, asking for a safe and rewarding journey.
The trail seems abandoned and lonely at first, but we’re gradually joined by more and more people, as we are all trying to reach the summit before sunrise– a solid 6 hours away. To hike the mountain after the sun rises is far too hot, and to reach the top too early before sunrise is too cold, when the lofty summit feels close to freezing.
The trail begins to climb, higher, higher, and we can occasionally steal glances at the fully-lit trail winding its way up the mountain.
After several hours of continuous stair-climbing, the path narrows and steepens, and each new step takes tremendous energy. We’re joined by entire families walking hand-in-hand up the sacred mountain, by young couples carrying their babies to the top for its first pilgrimage, by very old men and women who must have climbed the peak countless times before. Many of the older pilgrims are dressed in all white and are barefoot, there being that much more merit gained for making the arduous climb this way. At one point, we find ourselves in the middle of a group of young men whose beautiful call-and-response chanting –”Devindu, api enava” (“God, we are coming”)– helps propel us along to the top.
Eventually we reach Idikatu Pana, the steepest, most difficult point in the climb, where the stairs are nearly vertical. We pass by an old woman, folded in half at the waist, pulling herself up and up each step by the metal handrail; she still has a long way to go. Another woman is draped across the handrail in exhaustion, clinging to it to remain standing, as her family encourages her to take just one more step, one more step. Countless others are sitting and resting on the steps, their heads buried in their knees as they catch a few minutes sleep.
We eventually decide to pull over for a few minutes rest, not so much out of exhaustion but out of apprehension about making it to the freezing summit too long before sunrise. Seeing me resting on the side of the trail, an old woman in a white sarong with long gray hair grabs my hand, pulls me to my feet, and literally drags me up the mountain for a few hundred feet, saying, “Come, come, let’s go. Sri Pada, we climb. Come, come.”
[Last shop selling flower offerings before the top:]
As we near the top, some 6 hours of near-vertical climbing later, the crowd becomes very dense. Cold and gridlocked on the side of the mountain, we worry we won’t reach the summit before sunrise, and it takes nearly an hour to cover the last 30 feet of the climb. We finally reach the vertigo-inducing summit a mere 2-3 minutes before the sun breaks through the cloud layer far, far below us. The bulging crowd, all clinging for space at the top, becomes silent, and all that can be heard is the violent flapping of the Buddhist prayer flags strung out above us.
Behind us, Buddhists pay silent respects to the holy footprint, as the Hindus carry out a ceremony of their own only a few yards away. Together, we become witness to a spectacle of colors seemingly tossed across the infinite sky before us, and I know why each group has claimed this scared site as their own.
The climb down the mountain is dramatically more crowded and difficult than the climb up, and my legs take on a jerky, uncontrollable motion for the long journey downwards. We pass a very elderly man being helped down each step by his wife, who holds his elbow in support; he is crying in pain with each step that he takes. In stark contrast, porters wearing sarongs and turbans run up and down the mountain now that daylight has broken, carrying full tanks of gas hoisted on their shoulders to the rest stops that are now far above us. I fall somewhere in the middle– not yet crying but also certainly not running.
We manage to reach the town again by 9:30 in the morning– a full 9 hours since we first set out last night. The odd little 9 year old who apparently runs our guesthouse literally pushes us out of our room before our 10am check-out, screaming “The new guests are coming! The guests, they are coming!!” Tired and discombobulated, we grab our bags, hobble on to the next bus out of town, and fall fast asleep.
We were sore for at least the next 5 days, with going down stairs not just being difficult, but damn-near impossible– I had to go down backwards anytime we reached a staircase (which was oddly quite often) and hold my body weight up by my arms, using the railing. Whenever I caught a funny glance from someone as I hobbled down a set of stairs backwards, one foot at a time, I had nothing more to do than simply pat my thighs and call out “Sri Pada!”, when their expression would change from bemusement to surprise to finally, respect.
In our short time at the top of Sri Pada, I saw neither the famed sacred footprint nor the perfect triangle of Sri Pada’s shadow that is supposedly cast by the mountain shortly after sunrise (it was far too crowded to move around). But as I turned my back on the light show taking place before us and faced into the crowd, I did see something spectacular: the smiling faces of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, (and perhaps some butterfly collectors?) all upturned as one, offering collective praise to the heavens splashed out across the beautiful blue sky before us.