Walk in the Footsteps of the Gods On Sri Lanka’s Holy Mountain
The stone steps grew steeper and narrower, climbing ever higher. As the hours passed, it seemed they would never end, fatigue and strain tearing at my muscles. Keeping up a steady pace and not stopping was the key. High up on the peak many were struggling, some literally using the railings to try and pull themselves up the holy mountain.
The 4.2 miles straight up to the summit of 7,359-feet Adam’s Peak didn’t seem that daunting to me. But the final segment, the thousands of steep stone steps to the top of Sri Lanka’s legendary pilgrimage site, an incredible 5,500 of them, slowed even the youngest and fittest.
Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all have deep-rooted religious ties to the mountain, so pilgrims suffer the grueling climb for their beliefs. But outnumbering the pilgrims these days are Westerners, mostly 20-somethings, who trudge up the mountain in the middle of the night just to be able to say that they did it.
Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) is not only a soaring natural landmark but also one of Sri Lanka’s most revered places. The footprint discovered on the summit is claimed as Buddha’s by Buddhists (from one of his three visits to Sri Lanka), the god Shiva’s by Hindus (who ruled the island from the peak during Ramayana times) and as Adam’s by Muslims and Christians (his first step after being tossed from paradise). The majority of the pilgrims, however, are Buddhists, including some from far away lands.
Weaving through precipitous hills carpeted with endless rows of tea bushes, riding in the back of a three-wheel tuktuk that often sped through the curves of the serpentine road on two wheels, I arrived at the White House Hotel in the village of Dalhousie. Named for its imposing, four-story, white exterior, it was a bustling hub of activity, with travelers of many nationalities coming and going. But every guest at the White House, and every other hotel in the area for that matter, was there for only one reason: to hike up Adam’s Peak.
All of the guests gathered on the large, open-air terrace in the evening for a tasty and extensive buffet dinner of Sri Lankan curries. Immediately after dinner, things got serious. Niman, the hotel’s owner/manager, gathered his guests, as he does each evening, around an eight-foot-tall illustrated map of Sri Pada to give a lively, somewhat cheeky, dissertation on climbing Adam’s Peak. He established his credentials by professing to have hiked the peak 1,500 times, and then proceeded to describe the route in detail, including the landmarks we’d pass and when (to make sure we stayed on the right path), the thousands of challenging stairs, what we’d find on top, etc . . . The diverse group listened in awed silence but were apparently so intimidated by the mountain that they heard little.
At one point he identified when we would pass a tall statue of Buddha and immediately cross a wooden bridge. Then he asked: “So what are we looking for at this place in the journey?” No one spoke up — until I parroted what he had just told us. This scenario repeated itself several times; I was the only one to answer his sarcastic and obvious questions, earning a series of high-fives from Niman. The travelers — a mix of Sri Lankans, various European nationalities, a group of Indonesians and one Californian — were edgy, nervous. The mountain can do that to you.
Niman undoubtedly stoked some of that fear when he noted that the ascension was not so glorious for some: “On a number of occasions over the years, foreigners have had to be stretchered off the mountain carried by porters, some Sri Lankans as well, because they took terrible falls or had heart attacks.” He then pointed to a stack of walking sticks and recommended we use one, which I took him up on.
Surprisingly, his sternest warning was to “watch out for pickpockets preying on pilgrims among the crowds on top.” As he put it: “Sri Lankans are good people” — decidedly true, making it one of the safest places to travel — “but among 100,000 there may be one bad person.” He advised us to carry nothing of value in our pockets and reverse day packs so they are in front rather than on our backs.
And that was that; everyone was now on their own to climb Sri Pada, most planning to head out around 2:30 am to be sure of reaching the top in time for the reliably glorious sunrise.
Much of the path up is lit with fluorescent tubes and, in the lower half, dotted with kiosks selling hot food and tea, tchotchkes and warm clothing. During the December-March season, there’s a nightly parade of pilgrims and Westerners, more than 100 the night I was there. The path was a teaser, rambling along at a gentle incline at first, lulling me into complacency, before beginning to climb a little, then more, and more. The steps at first are widely spaced but become progressively sheerer and narrower. After thousands of steps, even the strongest hikers feel the effects: my pace slowed to a trudge, breath shortened with each step, legs began to ache, strength waned. My heart began pounding so hard that more than once it crossed my mind whether I was going to be the next foreigner to have a heart attack and be stretchered off the mountain.
Suddenly, I could see the summit, only some 100 steps away. Just below the top, a Sri Lankan policeman — echoing what Niman had said — was telling all who passed to watch out for pickpockets. I had made it in just 2 1/2 hours, a very fast time. I was greeted at the summit by a fierce, freezing wind that blew right through my layers of clothing. Hiking up, we were on the lee side of the mountain protected from the elements.
Reaching Adam’s Peak was anti-climactic. The summit houses only a few small shrines, colored flags ripping in the wind and several Buddhist bells. You don’t even get to see the famous footprint because it’s hidden inside of a metal cabinet. The sunrise was still nearly an hour away, so I crammed into one of the few sheltered spots and shivered while waiting for the warmth of the new day.
Pinks and reds streaked the sky first, giving way to pale oranges before a blazing yellow ball broke the horizon. Jostling for the best views, pilgrims were madly capturing the spectacular 360-degree panoramas with their phone cameras (incongruously, it was Buddhist monks who had the professional cameras with sizable telephoto lenses). The sun’s emergence brought a glorious, bright and clear morning of shimmering colors.
Within minutes, there was a mass movement to descend, creating a human traffic jam, though few departed without ringing one of the bells. The purpose, as one Buddhist pilgrim explained to me, is to “wake yourself up” as you continue on your journey to find wisdom, compassion and the path to enlightenment.
Was Adam’s Peak worth the draining exertion, loss of sleep, aching legs and knees, and the brutal cold? Absolutely. It was a seminal experience that defined my trip to Sri Lanka, a spiritual as well as physical journey with people from many nations, connecting with the country’s multi-cultural, multi-religion persona. Plus, for the rest of my life I can say I climbed to the spot of Adam’s first step after being ejected from the Garden of Eden.
Freelance travel writer/photographer Edward Placidi discovered his passion for exploring the world as a teenager and has gone on to travel in nearly 100 countries, mainly on solo, independent adventures. He has penned articles for numerous newspapers, magazines and websites. When not traveling he is whipping up delicious dishes inspired by his Tuscan grandmother who taught him to cook. A passionate Italophile and supporter of the Azzurri (Italian national soccer team), he lives in Los Angeles with his wife Marian.