compiled and edited by Ven. S. Dhammika
Without any doubt the most famous, the most visited and the most revered place in Sri Lanka is Sri Pada. For centuries it was considered the highest mountain on earth and it has the unique distinction of being held sacred by all the great world religions. Sri Pada soars upwards to a height of 7,360 feet from the very edge of the central highlands and viewed from the south west looks like a pinnacle on a verdant castle wall. For about half the year it is often hidden in cloud and the torrential rains that rush down its steep sides during this time makes visiting the summit almost impossible. This abundant precipitation feeds Sri Lanka’s four main rivers which all have their sources on the mountain’s lower slopes. Over the eons these rains have also washed nearly a thousand feet of rock and soil off Sri Pada and its surrounding peaks and the alluvial deposits that extend from its foot towards the south and east are one of the world’s richest gem mining areas. Like the mountain itself many legends are told about these gems.
The Arabs believed they were the crystallized tears Adam and Eve shed when they were expelled from Paradise. The story the Chinese told about them was even more beautiful. They said that when the Buddha visited Sri Lanka he found the people poor and given to theft. So out of compassion and to turn them to virtue he sprinkled the island with sweet dew which crystallized into gems thus freeing the people from poverty by giving them a means of making a living. The mountain is surrounded by exceptionally dense forest, much of it now making up the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. Although not actually growing on Sri Pada’s slopes but in the forests further to the north and west, Sri Lanka’s famous spices have long been associated with the holy mountain too. The Arabs believed that these sweet spices grew from cuttings and seeds which Adam bought with him from Paradise. A 14th century Persian poem says that Allah created all Sri Lanka’s spices and flowers so that Adam’s transition from Paradise to earth would be less painful.
What makes Sri Pada so special is not its height or beauty but a mysterious mark on its top which Muslims and Christians believe to be the footprint of Adam and Hindus believe is that of Shiva. But centuries before these faiths laid claim to the mark, perhaps as early as the first century BCE, the Sinhalese believed it to be the footprint of the Buddha himself. According to the Mahavamsa, during the Buddha’s third visit to Sri Lanka he flew from Kelaniya to Sri Pada, leaving the impression of his foot on the mountain top and then left for Dighavapi. Legend says that after King Valagambha was driven from his throne in 104 BCE, he lived in a remote forest wilderness for 14 years. On one occasion while hunting the deer he was stalking led him up the mountain to the sacred footprint. The gods revealed to him that the Buddha had made it.
From the bus stop to the summit the Dalhousie path is about 3 kilometers long and if there are no delays, takes about four hours to climb. For some way both sides of the path are lined with stalls and shops selling all manner of things. Among the gewgaws you will notice small booklets of poems, songs and verses that have traditionally been sung by pilgrims making the ascent. The ascent proper starts at the great Makhura Gateway some way from the bus stop. Beyond this point you will notice that much of the path consists of cement or rough stones stairs and that the whole way is illuminated with electric lights. Before the light were installed pilgrims had to provide their own illumination, candles or hurricane lamps and before that ‘tubes filled with a resinous substance .giving out a strong flaming blaze when lighted’. As you proceed you will pass numerous pilgrim’s rests offering shelter, medical assistance and sometimes food and water to pilgrims. The tradition of offering hospitality to pilgrims is an ancient one in Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa records this concerning King Vijayabahu. ‘Saying , “Let no one endure hardship who goes along the difficult pathways to worship the Footprint of the Chief of Sages on Samantakuta Mountain” , he caused the village of Gilimalaya which abounds in rice fields and other lands, to be granted to supply pilgrims with food. And at the Kadatigama road and at the Uva road he built rest houses’. Pilgrims going to Sri Pada traditionally greet each other by saying ‘Karunava’ meaning ‘Compassion to you’. If you say this to the people you meet you are sure to get a warm smile and a similar greeting in return.
After a while you will come to the Sama Chatiya, the World Peace Pagoda. This stupa was built by the famous Japanese Buddhist monk Ven. Nichi Fuji in 1976 and is maintained by several Japanese monks. At night there is little to see but during the day the brilliant white stupa stands out dramatically against the vast gray cliff behind it.
About 150 feet from the summit, just next to the last tea shop, is the Bhagava Cave. To get there climb on to the retaining wall and just walk into the undergrowth for a few yards. For centuries this cave was the only refuge for pilgrims caught on the mountain at night and for those seeking shelter from storms. Ascetic monks used to spend the nine months of the off season up here, completely isolated from the world below, living off wild fruit, herbs and moss. There are three inscriptions on the wall of the cave. King Nissankamalla wrote the first when he climbed Sri Pada during one of the many tours he made of his kingdom. This inscription records the improvements he made to the path up the mountain and the generous gifts he offered to its shrines. To the left of this is a figure of the king himself in a gesture of worship and beside it another inscription saying; ‘In this manner Nissankamalla stood worshiping the footprint’. Further to the left is the third inscription in Arabic dating from the 13th century which reads, ‘Mohammed, may Allah bless him… the father of Mankind’.
There is little to see on the top of Sri Pada, a few buildings, and the belfry with the bell that people traditionally ring once for each time they have made the pilgrimage, the shrine to Samanta and right next to it, the shrine over the sacred footprint. It is to worship at this last place that pilgrims and travelers throughout the centuries have risked hardship and danger to come to Sri Pada. Nearly as much has been written about the sacred footprint as has been about the mountain itself. According to Giovani de Marigolli, ‘The size, I mean the length thereof, is two and a half of our palms. And I was not the only one to measure it , for so did another pilgrim, a Saracen from Spain’. Robert Knox, an Englishman who lived in Sri Lanka in the 17th century, wrote that it was ‘about two feet long’. John Ribeyeo in his account of Sri Lanka presented to the king of Portugal in 1687 claimed that the footprint ‘could not be more perfect had it been done in wax’ and in 1859 James Emerson Tennent described it perhaps most accurately as ‘a natural hollow artificially enlarged, exhibiting the rude outline of a foot about five foot long’. Obviously people’s perception of the sacred footprint differ according to their expectations and their faith, or lack thereof. Look carefully and see what you think of it. Remember also that the footprint is an object of enormous religious significance to Sinhalese Buddhists so an attitude of quiet respect while near it and indeed throughout your stay on the summit is appropriate.
Sri Pada is not actually that high but its steep sides and the many lower mountains surrounding it give the impression of exceptional loftiness. It is sometimes possible to watch from above as clouds silently drift past. James Emerson Tennent’s description says it all. ‘The panorama from the summit of Adam’s Peak is perhaps the grandest in the world, as no other mountain, although surpassing it in altitude , presents the same unobstructed view over land and sea. Around it, to the north and east, the traveler looks down on the zone of lofty hills that encircle the Kandyan kingdom, whilst to the westward the eye is carried far over undulating plains, threaded by rivers like cords of silver, till in the purple distance the glitter of the sunbeams on the sea mark the line of the Indian Ocean’. Every morning a series of intriguing phenomena can be observed from the summit of Sri Pada. Just before sunrise everyone will assemble on the eastern side of the summit waiting for the sun. When it appears it seems to leap over the horizon rather than rise gradually. At this moment the more pious people will shout ‘Sadhu!’. The Sinhalese say that the sun is paying homage to the Buddha’s footprint. Everyone will then move to the western side of the mountain. Join them there and if the weather is clear you will see the perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain laying over the landscape. Sometimes if there is a light mist the shadow will appear to stand upright. Within moments, as the sun climbs higher, the shadow will move rapidly towards the base of the mountain and finally disappear. This strange phenomena is supposed to occur in only one other place in the world, somewhere in Arizona.
Go to the stairs leading down to Ratnapura and descend about a hundred feet. You will notice that soon the stairs become very steep. Everywhere else the hand rails are helpful, here they are absolutely necessary. On the right you will notice large chains riveted into the rock. In the thousand or so years that the Ratnapura path was the only way up the mountain these chains assisted the final ascent and they are mentioned in most ancient accounts of Sri Pada. The Muslims believed that Alexander the Great put them here. The Zaffer Namah Sekanderi, a 15th century Persian poem celebrating the exploits of Alexander says, “He fixed thereto chains with rings and rivets made of iron and brass, the remains of which exist even today, so that travelers, by their assistance, are enabled to climb the mountain and obtain glory by finding the sepulcher of Adam”. In actual fact they were probably first put here by an early Sinhalese king and replaced when needed over the centuries. In 1815 Major Forbes witnessed a tragic but at that time not uncommon accident at this very place. ‘Several natives were blown over the precipice, and yet continued clinging to one of the chains during a heavy gust of wind; but in such a situation, no assistance could be rendered, and they all perished’.
The pilgrim’s season to Sri Pada traditionally starts on the full moon of December and ends on Vesak . It takes a while for the crowds to build up but by the second half of the season they can be very large so it is best to go earlier. Weekends and particularly full moon days are always crowded and should be avoided. Traditionally people start the climb at about 2am so that they can arrive in time for the sunrise at around 6am. Alternatively, you can climb up during the day, stay overnight and go down the next morning. This way you can avoid the crowds, climb at a leisurely pace, have plenty of time to enjoy the view, see the sunset, spend the day quietly reflecting or meditating and get the best place to observe the sunrise in the morning. Accommodation on the summit is basic and you would have to bring your own food and perhaps a blanket or sleeping bag. However, whenever you decide to go, check the weather report before setting out. Rain can make for a miserable trip and it is more likely that cloud or mist will obscure the view.
Whether making the ascent by day or night it can be an arduous climb, so bring only what you are likely to need. There are food and drink stalls all the way up the Dalhousie path but prices are considerably higher than normal so you might like to bring your own snacks and water. You are likely to be warm during the climb itself but you can get very cold while waiting for the sunrise at the summit, so bring warm cloths. If the weather is uncertain an umbrella or rain coat will be useful. A pair of binoculars if you have them will also be most useful.
How To Get There
During the pilgrim’s season buses go directly from Kandy, Colombo and Nuwara Eliya to Dalhousie Likewise you can take a train, the Podi Menike, from Colombo or Kandy to Hatton and from there by bus to Dalhousie.
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