I mentioned a couple of expeditions in the previous post about a trip to Sri Lanka. The first was to the ancient Buddhist capital of Polonnaruwa but the second was to an even more sacred site. This was Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak as it is popularly known, which is a mountain in the central highlands of the country that stands at just over 7,300 feet tall and has at its summit a footprint of the Buddha. Or theoretically so. If that is the case the Buddha must have been a big fellow as the footprint is over 5 feet long and 2 and a half feet wide. Besides which there is no record of him having visited Sri Lanka anyway. This has not stopped the mountain from being an important place of pilgrimage but then why should it? In spiritual terms imagination is more powerful than mundane fact because it points, or can point when correctly oriented, to higher truth.
The name Adam's Peak comes from an alternate belief. There is an old story that Ceylon was the location of the Garden of Eden and so this is not the Buddha's footprint but that of our original father Adam marking the first place he stood after being thrown out of Paradise. Perhaps the association with Eden comes from the fact that the area around the mountain is one in which the rubies, sapphires and emeralds that gave ancient Ceylon the name of Ratnadvipa, meaning the Island of Jewels, were to be found. The Hindus have their own version of the tale and identify the mark with Siva while Christians say that St Thomas stood there. This is actually the least unlikely story as St Thomas was the apostle who travelled to South India and might conceivably have come to Sri Lanka even if he probably didn't. Be that as it may, whoever/whatever made this mark on the mountain's peak the reality is that for members of all religions it is a place of great religious significance.
|Adam's Peak from a distance (from Wikipedia)|
The idea is that you should start your climb in the early hours of the morning so that you reach the summit at sunrise for a spectacular view. We were staying at a hotel about 30 miles away and got up just after midnight to drive to a little town at the base of the mountain called Dalhousie which is where we were going to start our ascent though I believe there are other routes. It was mid May and the weather can be unpredictable then as it is the start of the monsoon season, the south-western one that is. Sri Lanka gets two monsoons, the south-western and the north east which comes in October/November. But as we started our ascent around 2am the weather was warm and pleasant. The climb was supposed to take around 3 hours and is about 2 and a half miles in length. It doesn't involve any actual climbing but parts are steep. There is a path at the beginning but, as far as I recall and this was 20 years ago so the details are a little blurred, at some point it turns into a stairway of 5,500 steps. Calling it a stairway is perhaps a little generous because it is very rough and ready and you need to be fairly fit to make the climb.
About halfway up there is a Japanese Peace Pagoda and this is where the ascent can get a bit more arduous. It is also where when I did my climb it began to rain. And rain. And continue to rain. We knew this was a possibility and my two companions had brought thin raincoat-like coverings to protect them but I only had a shirt which got soaked within 10 minutes. Having not much option, I decided to take this as one of the tests of pilgrimage and luckily it wasn't cold. There weren't many other people around either and this made the climb more enjoyable as you could imagine yourself to be fully embedded in the natural world. I have read that nowadays the climb can get very busy which, to my way of thinking, takes away the whole point of it.
What is the point? To climb a mountain is, in the religious sense, symbolic of the ascent to God. This ascent can be done with companions at the beginning but as you progress you become more and more isolated until you are alone. This is right and proper. You cannot know God if you are distracted by anything else. As long as you are attached to any aspect of creation you will not fully encounter the Creator. The meeting with God, to be real, must be wholly personal and this means it is just you and him. Nothing else. Climbing a mountain is an outer representation of going to meet God. As you ascend you are stripped of your worldly accoutrements and so I felt the torrential rain was somehow fitting.
Unfortunately it also meant that when I got to the top I saw nothing like this.
|Sunrise on Adam's Peak|
We had timed it well enough and got there just before sunrise but the summit was wreathed in cloud and mist with nothing to be seen. Oh well, not all pilgrimages end in enlightenment. We saw the footprint which looked like a natural rock formation to me and you might say the end result wasn't worth the climb. But the climb itself was the reward, the sense of having made an effort to achieve something was the achievement itself and the way up the mountain certainly had its moments of beauty. The descent seemed much quicker than the climb and by the time we reached 'base camp' the rain had stopped. I, in fact, had taken my shirt off about halfway down the mountain, so sodden was it, so you might say I had indeed stripped myself down to the bare essentials as required by the rules of pilgrimage. Things don't always turn out in quite the way expected.
|The mountain in good weather|