Sri Pada - Buddhism's Most Sacred Mountain
In the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Sri Lanka written in the 5th century CE, it is called Samantakuta ( Samanta's Abode) while in modern Sinhalese it is often called Samanelakhanda (Saman's Mountain).
This local mountain god was destined to go on to great things.
With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, a movement that began in south India from where it soon spread to the island, Samanta developed into Samantabhadra, one of the four principle bodhisattvas of Mahayana.
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.
Over the aeons 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.
Giant trees hang heavy with moss, rhododendrons put forth large red blossoms and rare orchids like the Regal and the Chandraraja grow in the dark moist loam.
But with the establishment of the coffee plantations in the 1850's these majestic creatures were completely shot out although pilgrims still occasionally report seeing Samanta's white elephant as they make the nocturnal journey up the mountain.
Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveler who visited Sri Lanka in 1344, like many people before and since, was appalled by the tenacity and ferocity of these leeches and mentioned that pilgrims would carry lemons to keep them at bay.
Today the jungle besides the paths that lead up the mountain is cut back at the beginning of each the pilgrim season thus lessening this problem. But rest for a moment on a rock at the jungle's edge or walk into it to answer the call of nature and hundreds of ravenous leeches will be waiting.
On the summit of the mountain is a boulder with a mysterious mark or indentation on it resembling a human footprint.
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 stalking a deer he was led up the mountain and discovered the sacred footprint.
The Lankavatara Sutra, the seminal text of the Ch'an and Zen schools of Buddhism, was supposedly taught by the Buddha while residing on Malayagiri, "which shone like a jewel lotus, immaculate and shining in splendour".
The Chakrasamvara Tantra mentions the Buddha flying to Lanka and leaving the impression of his foot on a mountain which it doesn't name but which at least one contemporary Tibetan scholar has mistakenly identified as Mount Kailash in the western Himalayas.
Moses of Chorene never saw the footprint himself but proclaimed that it had been made by the Devil.
Ibn Batuta mentioned that sometime before his visit the Chinese had come and cut the mark of the big toe out of the rock and enshrined in a temple in China "where it is visited by people from the farthest parts of the land".
An early Thai king sent monks to Sri Lanka to make an impression of the footprint and then had copies made in bronze and distributed all around his kingdom. (see above: copy of the Buddha's Footprint from Sri Pada, Sukhodaya style, 14th century).
According to the inscription Ch'ing-ho later set up to record his mission, the gifts included " 1000 pieces of gold, 5000 pieces of silver, 50 rolls of embroided multicolored silk, 4 pairs of jewelled banners, 5 antique incense burners, 6 pairs of gold lotuses, 2,5000 catties of perfumed oil" and numerous other things.
In 1423 a large group of Thai and Cambodian monks who were in Sri Lanka studying and collecting texts climbed the sacred mountain before returning to their homelands. The leader of this group made a copy of the footprint and took back to Thailand with him.
At the beginning of the 16th century the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka's maritime provinces and forbade Buddhists living under their jurisdiction and those coming from overseas from going to Sri Pada.
When the Dutch took over the maritime provinces in 1656 they proved to be less bigoted than the Portuguese but fear that pilgrims might act as spies for the king of Kandy led them, if not to ban, then at least to discourage visits by levying a heavy tax on pilgrims .
In this 2nd century Gnostic work Jesus is represented as saying to the Virgin Mary that he had appointed the angel Kalapataras as guardian over the mark "impressed by the foot of Adam and placed him in charge of the books of Adam written by Enoch in Paradise".
There are only occasional Christian references to the mountain in the proceeding centuries.
Macro Polo did not visit Sri Lanka specifically to make a pilgrimage to Sri Pada; he was on a diplomatic mission for Kublai Khan at the time, although he was the earliest European to leave a reasonably accurate account of it.
"In this island there is a very high mountain, so rocky and precipitous that the ascent to the top is impracticable, as it is said, excepting by the assistance of iron chains employed for the purpose.
By means of these some persons attain the summit, where the tomb of Adam, our first parent, is reported to be found. Such is the account given by the Saracens.
While climbing up he was shown the famous Fountains of Paradise, said to have been formed by the tears of Adam and Eve. However, the good friar was not impressed.
He wrote of it, "It is a pinnacle of surpassing height, which, on account of the clouds, could rarely be seen; but it lighted up one morning just before the sun rose, so that they beheld it like the brightest flame.
Coming from his cold gloomy medieval cloister to the eternal spring of Sri Lanka, de Marignolli had no difficulty believing that Paradise was nearby but he was not one to swallow everything he was told. He estimated that Paradise was in fact 40 miles further north of the mountain.
Supposedly evangelized by St Thomas in about 59 CE but more probably the descendants of Nestorian Christian merchants originally from Persia, these people had been coming and indeed continued to come to the sacred mountain for centuries.
Since then there have been numerous other accounts of the mountain.
One that deserves a mention because of the way its no-nonsense rationalism contrasts with the piety and sense of wonder of earlier accounts, is that written in 1819 by the first Englishman to make the ascent, Dr Henry Marshall. "
The area of the summit of the peak is 72 feet long and 54 broad, and is enclosed by a parapet wall five feet high... in the middle of this area is a large rock of Kabooe or iron-stone upon which is the mark of Adam's left foot, called Sri Pada by the Singhalese; but it requires a great deal of help from imagination to trace it out.
Upon the inside it is enclosed by a frame of copper fitted to its shape, and ornamented with numerous jewels set in four rows, but not of the best or most precious gems the island has been known to produce, for to me they looked very like glass.
We were not, I regret to say ,provided with an 'Union Jack' but we fired three volleys, to the great astonishment of the Buddhists as a memorial to them that a British armed party had reached the summit...
It was this second school's opinion that eventually prevailed.
Al Tabari in his great history of the world, asserts that the mountain was so high that "when Adam was cast upon it, his feet touched it while his head was in heaven and he heard the prayer and praise-giving of the angels".
At one point in the journey the party found itself in a jungle wilderness without any food.
To save themselves they killed a baby elephant and eat it, though the Shaikhs advised against this and refused to partake of the meat.
The chief elephant then put the Shaikh on his back and took him to the nearest village.
"From that time the infidels began to honour the Muslims and up to this day they revere the Shaikh and call him the Great Shaikh".
Sulaiman, an Arab trader is known to have gone to Sri Pada in 850 and Al Qazwini who died in 1282 quotes a hadith of the Prophet which says, "The best spot where the camel knelt down is Mecca, thereafter this mosque of mine (i.e. Medina) and Al Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the island of Sarandib where our father Adam had descended".
He talked with them and was told that they were both from Oman and while on business in Colombo had decided to go to Sri Pada. One of the Omanis also said that his grandfather had made the pilgrimage in the 1930's.
Ibn Batuta was accompanied on his pilgrimage by four Hindu yogis who went yearly, four Brahmins and ten companions of the king of Jaffna, indicating that at least in the 14th century it was popular with Hindus living in the northern part of Sri Lanka.
When he asked the Buddhist monks how he could expunge the evil kamma he had made they, to their credit, told him that like everyone else he would have to take responsibility for his own actions. This was not what he wanted to hear.
How did Sri Pada and its mysterious footprint become so widely known from such an early period? Sri Lanka is situated right on the main sea route between east and west, the so called Silk Road of the Sea.
Ibn Batuta wrote that he saw the mountain "rising into the heavens like a pillar of smoke" nine days out.
For centuries navigators used Sri Pada to get a bearing. It was these men, sailors, merchants and adventures who took the legends and stories about Sri Pada to the furthermost corners of the known world.
Sri Pada's religious associations, its height and its great natural beauty have long made it a favourite with writers and poets and its glories are celebrated in the literature of a dozen languages. The most famous such work is the Sumantakutavannana, a Pali poem composed in the 13th cent by Veheda Thera. Some twenty of the poems' verses are devoted to praising the mountains silvan beauty.
There is a delightful verse in the Sukitmuktavali where gems from the foot of the mountain, about to be carried away to be made into king's crowns and queen's diadems bid a cheerful farewell to the mountain.
The Rajataragani, written in Kashmir in the 11th century, includes a tale about the mythological King Meghavahana who came to Sri Lanka to receive homage from Vibhisana the lord of the Raksasas and then climbed Sri Pada.
In other works Sri Pada is used as an exotic destination or a colourful backdrop. In The Thousand and One Nights, written in Persia between the 9th and 13th centuries, it is one of the strange places that Sinbad visited.
In the Tamil epic Manimekela one character describes her pilgrimage to Sri Lanka "where stands the lofty Mount Samanta, on whose summit are the footprints of the Buddha, that ship of righteousness for traversing the ocean of birth and death".
The sacred mountain also gets a mention in the old Malay version of the Ramayana, in Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar's Book of the Wonders of India and even in the 14th century apocryphal Voyages and Travels of Sir John Manderville.
WHEN TO GO
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.
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 and get the best place to observe the sunrise in the morning.
HOW TO GET THERE
These two paths ceased to be used at least a hundred years ago and indeed they can hardly be traced today.
After the British began building roads through the highlands in the middle of the 19th century the Hatton path became and remains the most popular pilgrims route to the mountain. There are several ways to get to Hatton.
You can take a bus from the Colombo Bus Stand.
Alternatively you can take a bus from Kandy's Goods Shed Bus Dept which is situated just past the Post Office.
Once at Hatton take one of the numerous private buses to the foot of the mountain, a distance of about 33 kilometres.
Hatton is also on the main Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya railway line so it is possible to get there by train.
This second path is thickly forested for its entire length, crosses numerous streams and is definitely only for those used to trekking.
It is at least a five hour trek to the first village, Sripadagama from where regular buses go to Ratnapura.
WHAT TO BRING
Whether making the assent by day or night it can be an arduous climb, so bring only what you are likely to need.
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.
WHAT TO SEE
The Asent From the bus stop to the summit the Hatton path is about 3 kilometres 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.
The assent 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. The story behind the electrification of the path is an interesting one.
Since the inauguration of the Norton Bridge Hydro Scheme in 1924 the project had been plagued by one problem after another, delays, strikes and several bad accidents.
When the contractors eventually requested to pull out it looked as if the project would never be completed.
Finally on the 2nd November 1947 Sir John Kotelawala, then minister of works and later to become prime minister, made a vow to Samanta that if the project was finished soon and without further mishaps, he would electrify the paths up the mountain.
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".
William Skeen describe the dramatic impression created by these burning torches as he looked down from the summit during his visit to Sri Pada in the 1860's. "The heavens above were clear, the stars were shining bright, and the glorious full-orbed moon was scarcely passed its zenith.
From the Peak, ablaze with light to Heramitipana station similarly lighted up, the whole of the pilgrims path was filled as it were, with a living chain of fire, connecting the two points together and formed by the torches of the multitudes going to and fro".
As you proceed you will pass numerous danasalas 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.
"Saying ,'Let no one endure hardship who goeth 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.
The Sama Chatiya
At night there is little to see but during the day the brilliant white stupa stands out dramatically against the vast grey cliff behind it.
To get there climb on to the retaining wall and just walk into the undergrowth for a few yards.
Acetic 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 two inscriptions on the wall of the Bhagava Cave.
To the left of the inscription is the figure of a man in the gesture of reverence, probably a portrait of the king. Further to the left is yet another inscription.
Written in Arabic in the 13th century it reads, "Mohammed, may Allah bless him...the father of Mankind". There is another cave on the slopes of Sri Pada, the Divaguha, where the Buddha is said to have rested. It is referred to in many ancient sources but to this day it has not been located.
The Sacred Footprint
There is little to see on the top of Sri Pada, a few buildings, 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.
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, about half a Prague ell.
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 as "a natural hollow artificially enlarged, exhibiting the rude outline of a foot about five foot long".
The View and The Sunrise
It is sometimes possible to watch from above as clouds silently drift past. James Emerson Tennent's description says it all.
Around it, to the north and east, the traveller 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"
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.
Then everyone will move to the western side of the mountain. Join them and 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 phenomena is supposed to occur in only one other place in the world, somewhere in Arizona.
The Ancient Chains
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.
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 travellers, by their assistance, are enabled to climb the mountain and obtain glory by finding the sepulchre of Adam".
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".
C. W. Nicholas, Historical Topography Of Ancient and Medieval Ceylon, Colombo, 1963. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, Foreign Notices of South India, Madras, 1939. W. Skeen, Adam's Peak, Colombo, 1870. H. Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, Vols I-IV, 1913-16.