Claire Millar has written for us before on the tales of her travels in Istanbul. From Istanbul to Sri Lanka, it sounds like one romantic location to the next – but conquering the holy mountain of Sri Pada at sunrise was anything but paradise for their relationship.
Sri Pada is a holy mountain. This great green pimple of a peak rises up from Sri Lanka’s central hill country to a height of 2,243 metres, and is more commonly known to travellers as Adam’s Peak. The summit is a site of pilgrimage for thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians each year, as it boasts a ‘sacred footprint’ rock formation, believed to be the footprint of Buddha, Shiva, St Thomas or Adam depending on your faith. Yet this mountain took me no closer to nirvana—the ascent of 6000 stairs instead offered a premonition of what was to come for my relationship with the man I chose to climb it with.
As our bus rattled its way through tea plantations and potholes on the winding drive to the hike’s starting point, Dalhousie, I willed away motion sickness by daydreaming about the climb. Yes, it would be tough, but I imagined the proclamations of love and deep, soulful stares we would shower upon one another with the sun’s first rays dancing across our faces. After all, Sri Lanka wasn’t once named Serendib, the Arabic root of the English word serendipity, for nothing. How romantic it would be.
The four hour climb began at 3am, in order to reach the footprint in time for the sacred ceremony held as the sun rises. The path was crowded with pilgrims in sandals and bare feet—mothers carrying babies, stooped grandmothers clutching at the elbows of dutiful grandchildren, all dressed in the patchwork polar fleece beanies sold at the bottom of the mountain. We all put one leg in front of the other together in silence, the night air marked only by the prayers echoing from intermittent loudspeakers along the path.
We stopped for tea, ginger beer, snacks, to bend over and wheeze out fog, and sit and wipe away the clammy sweat that persevered despite the absence of the sun. I distracted myself from the exertion by contemplating the irony of Adam’s first step onto earth after being banished from the Garden of Eden being onto an emerald island largely regarded to be the closest thing we have to a real-life Garden of Eden. Halfway up the mountain, the stomach pain I’d been experiencing as a regular part of travel in Asia exploded, and I rushed to the nearest bathroom, staying there for at least 30 minutes. How unromantic it was turning out to be.
Nonetheless we made it to the summit, and waited, huddled close to one another and to the crowd to stay warm. As the sun rose and the drumming ceremony accompanying it built to a crescendo, I filled my lungs with thin mountain air and let out an almighty (almighty yet hushed—there were pilgrims to be respectful of) rendition of the opening refrain to that Elton John classic, Circle of Life. My beau turned to me, and instead of responding to my cue with “everything the light touches is yours”, “Simbbaaaaa” or even “I love you”, he growled, “I never want to hear you do that again” with more malice than I ever expected he could muster. I stuttered, mumbling something about the importance of the Lion King to our generation, to which I got a snapped, sarcastic retort about cheapening beautiful moments.
Yet the light touching the land was indeed a majestically beautiful, gloriously stupendous sight, worthy of the most exaggerated of South Asian hyperbole. As tourists and middle-class pilgrims lucky enough to own a camera snapped away at the scene, my gloomy partner grumbled under his breath about how he wished people would put the cameras away for such a special moment. It became clear that he only wished the other amateur photographers would move away from the best vantage point so he could capture his own scenes of hypocrisy.
As the sun rises over Sri Pada, the mountain creates an incredible, perfect triangle shadow over the surrounding plains. The rising mist illuminates the adjacent hills in shades of dusky purple, the triangle stamped over the top. Its geometry is astounding and eerie, and so I proclaimed, referencing the Louvre and Dan Brown. “Don’t tell me you read that shit” was the response I received. Despite standing on a holy massif, he was hellfire quick to pass judgment on my sinful reading habits. Behind us, the ceremonial drums continued to beat long and loud, signaling a death knell for our relationship.
Whether it was a blessing or a curse I’m yet to decide, but there’s one thing for sure—Adam was not the only one lurched from paradise at the summit that morning. Perhaps I should have been warned by the peak’s other melancholy moniker, Samanalakande, meaning the place where butterflies go to die. The path down revealed temples, stupas, stalls and tea pickers dotting the dark green hillsides with bright scarves and heavy baskets—so much we had been blind to while the track was covered in darkness. We traipsed the 6000 stairs down together in silence, a long and hot funeral march, and the beginning of the end.
Conquering Sri Pada:
- You can complete the pilgrimage between December and May—at other times the summit temple is unused, clouds often obscure the views and rain can wash out the track.
- There are numerous paths up the mountain, but the most common is from Dalhousie (easier than the seven hour climb from Ratnapura).
- Getting to Dalhousie can be a little tricky. 33km by road from Hatton: if you can gather together enough hikers to hire a taxi or minivan this is the best option, otherwise intermittent buses will get you there… eventually.
- Stay at the imaginatively named White House or Green House, or the often booked out Slightly Chilled in Dalhousie. White House has a particularly luscious garden by the river and a hearty buffet dinner and breakfast (upon return from the climb). Alternatively, reward yourself and recuperate at one of the surrounding colonial tea estates, such as Castlereagh Family Cottages or Tea Trails.
- Wear layers—it’s cold when you begin the hike at 3am, yet the sun will fry you on the descent. Take snacks or spare change to spend at the ambalambas (resting places) on the way, sunscreen, plenty of water and an extra pair of socks as entry to the summit must be done sans shoes, and the ground before sunrise is freezing.