Sunrise over the Sri Pada mountain range seen through Kelani Ganga at dawn in Hanwella
January is a chilly and refreshing month in most parts of Sri Lanka. In the lowlands it is cool both, day and night. In the Central highlands, especially in Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains, the temperature averages 57.7F, and at night there may even be frost. January is at the tail-end of the North East Monsoon and therefore very little rain may be experienced. This is the season when pilgrims trek to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), which goes on till May.
Sri Pada, Samanala Kanda or Adam’s Peak is venerated as a place of worship due to its association with the Buddha’s visit to the summit in 6th century BC. Sri Pada means sacred footprint at the top of a 7,400 feet high mountain and is considered a unique place of worship the world over. Visitors from all parts of the world visit Sri Pada to ascend the mountain.
Earlier it was called Samanala Kanda, that is, ‘Saman’s Hill.’ Before Buddhism was introduce to the island, the deity Saman had been regarded as supreme in the island. The clouds of yellow butterflies that converge on the mountain every year are also called samanalayo.
As a place of pilgrimage, the summit received royal patronage during the days of Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 AD). There were three main routes leading to the summit. One was through Gileemalaya, the Rajarata route was through Ginigathena and the third was from the Uva.
The king had developed all three routes and provided facilities to bhikkhus and to pilgrims and established many resting places en route. This is recorded in the Ambagamuwa inscription of the monarch.
Several other rulers followed this example in providing facilities for the pilgrims: some of them scaling the summit themselves for worship.
Mention should be made of Nissankamalla (1187-1196 AD),Vijayabahu III (1232-1235 AD), Parakramabahu II (1236-1270 AD), Wickramabahu IV (1336-1373 AD), Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707 AD) and Narendrasinghe (1707-1730 AD).
King Rajasingha I (1581-1593 AD) of Sitawaka entrusted the custody of Sri Pada to the Saivites after embracing Hinduism. This arrangement changed with his death and custody was re-vested with the Buddhist bhikkhus. This tradition has continued and is observed to date.
The earlier practice of appointing a leading bhikkhu as the custodian of Sri Pada by the king has been changed to elect a bhikkhu as the trustee by a limited electorate of chief bhikkhus of the Vihara in the Sabaragamuwa Province.
The Buddhists of Sri Lanka consider Sri Pada (Samantakuta) as the fourth important shrine in their reckoning of 16 places hallowed by the Buddha’s visit.
According to the Mahawamsa, the Gautama Buddha himself placed the impression of his foot on a gem-studded stone on the summit at the invitation of Deity Sumana Saman during his third visit to the island.
Muslims and Christians refer to Sri Pada as Adam’s Peak and Hindus believe the footprint is that of Siva.
Hence, it is evident that followers of all major religions in the country ascend the summit to worship the footprint.
It was Suleiman (850 AD), an Arab writer, who first referred to this spot as Adam’s Peak, as the mountain of the first human being. The Chinese traveller, Bhikkhu Fa-Hsein visited the peak and Ibn Batuta, a traveller who had ascended the mountain as a pilgrim had written an account of the summit in circa. 1344.
Prof. Senarath Paranavitana, renowned archaeologist, in his account of ‘The God of Adam’s Peak’ summarises the significance of Sri Pada as a place of worship in the following terms:
“The fascination of this mountain to those who admire the grandeur and the sublimity of nature continues to be as great as ever and the pilgrims of three different faiths counting millions of adherents continue to ascend the mountain, year after year, during the season that is most suitable for the purpose.”
Sri Pada can be reached by travelling along the Ratnapura – Palabaddala road to Gileemalaya where the climb begins along a footpath. This is considered as the ancient route to Sri Pada.
In addition, there are other slightly shorter routes through Maskeliya via the Dalhousie Estate, which begins at a much higher elevation and is a much easier ascent of about seven kilometres.
The other routes are along the Kuruwita-Eratna Road and Wewelwatte. The peak is 2,243 metres high and is the fifth highest mountain in the country. It is the source of four major rivers – Mahaweli, Kelani, Kalu and Walawe. Generally, tens of thousands of pilgrims make the journey every year, and most of them climb at night up a staircase illuminated by electric lamps.
Many ambalamas (pilgrim’ rests) and refreshment stalls located along the way make the climb easier.
Those who reach the summit by dawn witness an almost supernatural spectacle: the magnified, triangular shadow of the peak itself superimposed on the awakening countryside.
Adam’s Peak pilgrims follow many unique traditions in their ascent. It is customary for first-time climbers to pile great turbans of white cloth on their heads.
On the main routes, the Indikatupahana (place of the needle) demands the devout pilgrims to stop and fling a threaded needle into a shrub by the side of the path, making a spot where the Buddha is said to have paused to mend a tear on his robe.
At the summit, a bell clangs unceasingly, reverently rung by the old and the young alike, to signify a pilgrimage completed.
Whatever your faith and no matter which path you choose, ascending this sacred mountain is a must for Sri Lankans and a remarkable experience for all.
But this time, the pilgrims to Sri Pada must adhere strictly to the Covid-19 health regulations imposed by the health authorities.