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Spiritual places: Adam's Peak
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Spiritual places: Adam's Peak
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Spiritual places: Adam's Peak
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Articles
18 April 2018

Spiritual places: Adam's Peak

It’s a place where many people feel closer to their gods, whomever those gods may be.

Written by Sarah Baxter

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Image: Harry and Zanna Goldhawk

The steps seem to go on and on. And on. A never-ending climb that tugs at lungs and limbs. But, despite this, there’s an irresistible momentum pulling you uphill in the lamp-lit darkness. You’re part of a stream of human toil. The night air bubbles with spiritual songs, sadhus’ chants and a whiff of the spicy chai being brewed alongside the trail. As dawn approaches, fatigue levels increase but the mood—just like the altitude—gets higher and higher. Your goal is nearing: at the zenith of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka’s lush tea country is the sri pada—a mysterious ‘sacred footprint’ that draws devotees of multiple religions. They come to worship at this holy rock and to watch in awe as the perfectly pyramidal peak casts its shadow onto the plains below.

Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s number one pilgrimage destination. On the top of this 2,244-metre (7,362-feet) conical mountain is a rock bearing a long, wide dent—a sacred footprint that has been appropriated by many faiths. The early Sinhalese believed the mountain was the home of Saman, one of Sri Lanka’s guardian gods who was later adopted as a Buddhist bodhisattva (enlightened being); the resplendent yellow butterflies that flock to the mountain in their millions are called samanalayo, in his honour. Today, Saman’s main shrine lies in the village of Ratnapura, from where the toughest pilgrimage route up the peak begins. Another Saman shrine guards the sacred footprint at the summit.

Buddhists believe the holy sole mark was created by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. It’s said that, on Gautama’s third visit to the island in the fifth century BC, he stepped on Adam’s Peak with his left foot, and then strode right across the Bay of Bengal, leaving the indent of his right foot in Thailand. The print’s great size—roughly 1.8 metres (6 feet) long—is down to the fact that the Buddha was supposedly over 10 metres (33 feet) tall. According to Hindus, however, the impression was left by Lord Shiva as he danced the world into being. Christians say the mark was made by St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, who introduced the religion to Sri Lanka. A 15th-century text claims the footprint was made by Pangu, the first man of Chinese mythology. Muslims think the sri pada is the indent of the Prophet Adam, who landed here on one foot after being thrown out of Paradise, and had to stand that way for a thousand years as penance. The abundant gemstones—topaz, rubies, garnets, sapphires—found in the mountain’s foothills are the crystallised tears shed by Adam and Eve after their banishment. The footprint was allegedly discovered by exiled King Valagambahu in the first century BC, who was led there by a deity in the guise of a stag. Pilgrims of all creeds and classes have been visiting ever since, including legendary travellers Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo.

Today, thousands climb Adam’s Peak each year. Most come during pilgrimage season, from December to May, when the route is illuminated by a string of lights and the weather is driest. There are four trails, which wend via tea estates and Buddhist shrines into the untamed realms of the mountain’s wilderness sanctuary. There are testing sections, steep steps and long drops. Ambalama—wayside resthouses—have been built for pilgrims and travellers to stop, eat and sleep en route. But eventually the summit appears, along with the small temple in which the footprint sits. Devotees prostrate before the sacred rock, touch it with their foreheads and make votive offerings: food, money, coils of silver. Some scoop out rainwater that’s collected in the holy hollow, as it’s believed to possess healing powers. Outside the temple, the view is magnificent. All of Sri Lanka seems to spread out—the ripple of the Central Highlands, the distant blue of the Indian Ocean. It’s a place where many people feel closer to their gods, whomever those gods may be.

This is an edited extract from, The Inspired Traveller’s Guide by Sarah Baxter (Aurum Press, RRP $29.99)

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