Monday, June 3, 2013

Travel Monday: Sri Pada - Pilgrimage, Faith and Spectacular Sunrises

“You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself”
- James Whittaker 
Sri Pada is a sacred mountain (7,360 ft), located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. It has religious significance to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. As such, it is known by many names:
  • Sri Pada derives from sanskrit and is roughly translated as "the sacred foot", which refers to a footprint-shaped mark at the summit of the mountain. Buddhists believe it is the footprint of the Buddha
  • Adam's Peak - Muslims and Christians believe the footprint to be that left by Adam after he was thrown out of Paradise (though the Portuguese Christians later attributed St. Thomas the Apostle as having stayed or visited the mountain)
  • Shivanolipatha Malai or Shiva Padam (in tamil) - Hindus believe the footprint to be that of their deity Shiva
  • Samanalakanda (in sinhala) - It has two possible references: one refers to the Hindu deity Saman, who is said to live upon the mountain; two refers to the butterflies ("samanalayā") that frequent the mountain during their annual migrations to the region
  • Ratnagiri - the Mountain of Gems

The pilgrimage season begins on Unduvap poya in December through to the Wesak poya in May. It is the time when the weather is good and the peak is not covered by mist. The peak period during the pilgrimage season is from January to February. Please note that during the season, weekends and particularly full moon days are usually crowded. 

There are six paths to access Sri Pada. The two favored trails are the Hatton-Nallathanni and the Ratnapura-Palabathgala. The usual route taken by most pilgrims is to ascend via Hatton and descend via Ratnapura. It is important to note that the Hatton trail is the steepest and shortest of all the other trails.

I climbed Sri Pada in December a few years ago ascending and descending via the Hatton trail. The total length of the Hatton trail is five kilometers and will take between five to seven hours to climb (depending on physical fitness).

At the time, I hadn't known very much about Sri Pada and had not prepared myself mentally nor physically for the ascent (and descent). I certainly hadn't known that the trail we would be taking would be the shortest at five kilometers and the steepest! All I knew was that we would rest in the early evening at a guesthouse and then around midnight we would make our way to Hatton to commence our ascent. The reason for making the climb at night was to make it to the peak to arrive in time to see the sunrise. Making the climb at the start of the pilgrimage season is actually a good choice as I recall a lack of crowds and clear dry weather.

The alternative to making the climb at midnight, is to climb during the day, stay overnight at the summit, watch the early sunrise and descend afterwards. This normally avoids the crowds and allows plenty of time to enjoy the expansive views, see where you're climbing and observe the sunrise from a good vantage point.

I have to admit I made a bad decision before we even started to climb Sri Pada. And I strongly advise you to learn from my little mistake. At the guesthouse where we were resting before the climb, I decided to have a meal, and ordered a kotthu about 2 hours beforehand. Now what's wrong with that, you ask. Well, it's an extremely poor form to eat food prior to a climb up a mountain. I learnt this the hard way! I had both indigestion as well as feeling like all my energy was concentrated on the digestion of food rather than aiding me in the ascent. I do plan on climbing Sri Pada again and I will not be eating food so close to the climb.

The pathways on the Hatton side are well maintained and illuminated.  At this stage I was thinking to myself that it looked like it was going to be a straightforward walk and climb. Boy was I wrong. Doubly wrong, with all that food in my belly.

We started the ascent just after 12.30am. There were four of us. We carried one small backpack for water, toilet paper and some warmer clothing for when we reach the summit. As we started the ascent I quickly realized it wasn't going to be an easy climb. Although the trail was well-lit and laid with concrete or cement, it was the steepness that soon became apparent.

I felt an hint of mysticism in the air  and a subtle eeriness that seemed to permeate as we climbed higher. What I found magical was gazing upwards on the ascent at the illuminated trail leading all the way up to the summit. Unfortunately my camera wasn't slick enough to take that magical shot back then.

Along the way there are rest stops and stalls set up that sell provisions and refreshments. I can imagine on a busier day there would have been a more festive feel as you ascend Sri Pada.  The one thing I was concerned about was whether I'd be able to find toilet facilities if I needed them. I was to find out there are some toilet facilities, but if you miss them, then it's a "by-the-side-of-the-pathway-off-the-mountain" kind of a deal. Luckily I found some when I needed to relieve myself. However, it was pitch black and when I used my torch I decided it was probably going to be a better experience with the light off! Fumbling in the dark is definitely not recommended, especially if you fear falling or that you'll pee on yourself. Luckily I didn't fall, and we won't say anymore about the latter!

Jokes and ordeals aside, there is a spiritual element to climbing Sri Pada. For me, it came in the form of a couple of stray dogs that accompanied me up the mountain. It was a truly strange experience. I met them somewhere around 25% of the way up, and then they never left me. Whenever I stopped to catch my breath, take a sip of water, or try to take a photo they stopped with me. Obviously, our group of four was never going to be able to stay together. Two out of four were faster and fitter than the other two of us. So they climbed ahead. I was part of the slower two and from time-to-time, my friend would stray a little further ahead of me. I wasn't scared as such, but it wasn't busy on the mountain that night so with the darkness, stillness and coolness in the air, there was comfort offered by those two stray dogs. It was as if they were my guides and protectors. One was a pale color, while the other was darker. They were like night and day.

If you're making the climb as a pilgrimage there are some that say it's important not to say anything negative on the way up or to question how far till you reach the top. I'm not sure if there's any truth in this, but if in doubt, refrain.

I did make it safely up to the summit, with shaky legs towards the end. It had gotten cooler and windier the higher we climbed, but while we were climbing it wasn't a major issue. That all changed once we were at the top. If I had read up a little I would have known how freakin' freezing it gets up on the summit. Luckily, I had something warm to put on, but it still wasn't good enough! After being all hot and sweaty making the climb, the last thing I wanted was to catch a chill.  My two friends had made it up earlier, taking only four hours and four and a half hours each. So they were both frozen by the time we made it up. Luckily, when we made it up an hour or so after them just before sunrise, we were able to negotiate a warm drink and some time in a small room where they could get out of the cold.

The view was spectacular and expansive with the clouds providing a magical feel to being atop Sri Pada.

The first signs of dawn come around 6am and sunrise was around about half an hour later. I found a suitable spot, wrapped my arms around myself and just stood there watching the view unfold. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences to behold. It's slightly hazy, but you get a beautiful view of the landscape below and some cloud cover.

There is a small temple and shrine on the summit of Sri Pada that contains the footprint. What you see is actually a cast of the footprint. The original footprint is protected underneath the cast. We observed the morning puja and then I spent some time around the shrine and made my own offering.

We took a little more time to take in the sunrise and then decided to start our descent.

My two stray dogs did not descend with us. I think I might have spied them much later when we got closer to the base. Since then, I've heard stories of other people being guided or accompanied by stray dogs up Sri Pada. It still fascinates me.

As we descended it was wonderful to take in all that we had passed, but hadn't seen, in the night as well as the views looking back up at Sri Pada.

I'm not sure about other mountains, but the descent from Sri Pada was faster than the ascent, though it took more effort for me. It seemed like there were endless steps and my thighs, knees, calves and feet were killing me all the way down. I literally felt legless at the end and I was too scared to sit down for fear that I'd never be able to get up! To my surprise, we made it down to the base in about three and half to four hours. I read somewhere that the postman who delivers the mail daily can make the ascent in one and half hours! I'm not so sure I'd be able to do that.

All things being said, it's a special place to visit and well worth all the difficulty, aches and pains. If you are planning a visit or pilgrimage, I wish you safe travels and many blessings on your journey.

PS - There is an wealth of information available on the Sri Pada website if you're interested.

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