A Moment of Serendipity in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka, Asia
A Little History
In Sinhala, the name Sri Lanka translates literally as "Sacred Land". Known to Arab traders as Serendib, the island has been revered since ancient times as a place of unsurpassable beauty. European explorers likened the island to a pearl hanging in the sea, or a teardrop hanging from India. Whichever descriptors you prefer, Sri Lanka is a land of alluring contrasts. A day's journey can bring you from gleaming towers of newly minted glass in Colombo to the crumbling remains of the ancient ruler's red-brick stupas of Anuradhapura, or if you are more charmed by Mother Nature's accomplishments, from the steaming, coconut palm beaches of the southern coast to the mist covered hills of tea country.
The most fitting and quintessential landmark of this holy land is Adam's Peak, a 2,243-meter mountain located in the southcentral region of the country. Known in Sinhala as Sri Pada, "Sacred Footprint", the peak is a pilgrimage destination for followers of the world's main religions who contend that the footprint belongs to their respective individual. For Buddhists, the mark is Buddha's left footprint said to have been left as a relic for veneration after flying from India to give a sermon. For Hindus, it is Shiva's who, they believe, ascended the mountain to shed light on mankind. Muslims think Adam stood here on one foot for 200 years after his expulsion from paradise as a penance to Allah. Christians have, since colonial times, claimed the impression to be left by St. Thomas the Doubter before his ascension to heaven, although this explanation has not been held in serious consideration.
Pilgrims from all of these faiths attempt the climb during the winter season from December's poya (full moon day) to May's poya. During this season the town of Dalhousie, the site of the trailhead, is overtaken with stalls selling pre-arranged offering baskets, icons of every imaginable size and shape, mountains of sweaters and jackets for the warm-blooded Sri Lankans, not used to the mountaintop's cold.
The climb is traditionally done by night so as to reach the peak by sunrise, takes about four hours to cover the eight kilometers. A seemingly innocuous distance, the climb is a hearty test of near-vertical steps and never-ending false summits. The wearing hike follows a series of lights tracing their way to the peak that serve as a constant reminder of how far it really is. As one nears the top, sleep deprived and weary, the calls of the vendors become more intense, shouting in pidgin-English offers of tea, biscuits, incense and dharma.
For all the obstacles and hardship, the summit is itself a revelation. An amalgamation of monks, half-naked ascetics, pious families and curious tourists ring the bell to signify their number of ascents to their respective deity. Mingling warily and shivering in the cold, the crowd becomes silent and faces east as the sun begins to throw a sea of yellows, oranges and pinks across the landscape into the night's black shadows. It is quite easy for the mind to conjure images of sun-worshipping pagan cults as the pilgrims begin their prayers and offerings.
The Shadow Phenomenon
After the sun has burst through the night completely, the sea of people rush to the west to witness the shadow phenomenon. The sun casts a perfectly triangular shadow over the mountaintop that seems to hover effortlessly in the pale blue morning sky. The occurence happens without fail on clear days and is all the more intriguing due to the peak's irregular shape. Buddhist pilgrims happily explain to befuddled tourists that the shadow represents the Buddhist trinity: the Buddha himself, his teachings and the body of monks who follow his words.
The crowd lingers long enough to appreciate the shadow and to absorb the sunrise before plying back. Stumbling down the trail with jelly for legs, dreams of sleep and images of the surreal cult-like piety of the crowd, the scenery that was shrouded in darkness just a few hours before, is fully alive. Monkeys are screeching their morning calls, birds dart back and forth in search of breakfast and the tea vendors are perfecting their English. Stumbling past the trimmed tea bushes, winding streams and ramshackle homes with laundry hanging between banana trees, it is easy to imagine the first English speaker to visit Serendib had found something quite pleasing he was not looking for on Adam's Peak.