Soul searching in Sri Lanka

Historical, religious and cultural significance makes Adam's Peak well worth a climb.

Historical, religious and cultural significance makes Adam’s Peak well worth a climb.

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Some places in the world become revered across cultures and religions as places of worship, which inspires people on a pilgrimage from far away. Such a place is Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka.

Also known as Sri Pada, meaning “sacred footprint”, the mountain is famous for a depression in the rock resembling a footprint, which in Hinduism is believed to be that of Shiva, while Christians and Muslims recognise the footprint as that of Adam. Sri Pada is perhaps most important to the Buddhists, however, who view it as Buddhism’s most sacred mountain. Every year, during the official Sri Pada Season, which starts in December and ends at full moon in April, hundreds of thousands of devotees visit the mountain and it was during this time that I too climbed the many steps to the top.

Sacred Journey

During ancient times, the only way to get to Sri Pada was from Ratnapura. Over the years, several paths have come and gone and today the most popular pilgrim’s route to the mountain is through Hatton, a sleepy town which serves mainly as a gateway to Sri Pada and Nuwara Eliya, the latter popular amongst travellers – local and foreigners alike – for its beautiful surroundings and British heritage.

One of my favourite modes of travel is the train, so I was excited to find out I could travel all the way from Colombo to Kandy and further on to Hatton using the railway. The trip is known as one of the most picturesque train journeys in the world, so I looked forward to climbing through the tea production heartland of Nuwara Eliya District.

The Ascent

Once in Hatton it is not difficult to find a way to the foot of the mountain as several buses depart throughout the day. The most popular way to reach the summit is by leaving at night, which means you make it to the top in time for the sunrise before walking down again. I decided to walk during the day instead to escape the crowds and allow myself more time to enjoy the journey.

The day I chose, the sun was shining from blue skies and it was wonderfully clear with beautiful views over the tea plantations below. Due to its popularity, the Hatton path is lined with shops and stalls selling religious souvenirs such as necklaces made from local seeds that have been dried, little notebooks with songs and poems, as well as refreshments sold from little tea shops.

On the way to the summit I passed the Sama Chatiya, also known as the World Peace Pagoda. Built by the famous Japanese monk, Ven Nichi Fuji in 1976, the stupa is nothing spectacular but it’s a nice change from the many stalls and vendors lining the path. Almost at the top lies the Bhagava cave, which used to be the only refuge for pilgrims to spend the night. During the low season, when no pilgrims made the journey to Sri Pada, acetic monks lived in the caves living off fruits and nuts completely cut off from the world below. Today, the cave serves only as a tourist attraction.

At the summit, people ring a bell indicating how many times they’ve made the pilgrimage to Sri Pada. For people such as myself, who were not there for religious reasons, the most exciting thing about the peak was the unobstructed views over the green expanse below, with glimpses of the Indian Ocean in the far distance.

More than a Footprint

There is no doubt that Sri Pada is one of the main attractions of Nuwara Eliya district, yet the region has a lot more to offer than the relatively short climb on the mountain. Nuwara Eliya town has earned its nickname – Little England – due to its colonial architecture and temperate climate, which at times resembles the English summer more than a Sri Lankan tropical environment. A popular past time in Nuwara Eliya is visiting the many tea factories and plantations in the surrounding area, but after the trek up to Sri Pada I decided to stay closer to the town and explore some of the local attractions. A short walk through the town took me past The Post Office set in a colonial era building and to Victoria Park, which offers a beautiful display of both tropical fauna and conventional English gardening traditions.

In the afternoon I went to search for some food. Sri Lankan food often falls under the larger umbrella of Indian food, but the two kitchens are distinctly different, each one sufficiently diverse in its own right. Sri Lankan food is relatively spicy and diverse in terms of ingredients, styles and techniques – a remnant of the country’s rich history as an active spice trading hub where traders from all over the world brought their own types of food to the island.

I ended up with a plate of aromatic rice and a fish curry from a street kitchen not far from Victoria Park. With it came a multitude of vegetables, including lentils, pickles and chutneys. Sitting there, legs sore from the climb to Adam’s Peak, my mind full of impressions, and my stomach satisfied with rich fragrant food, I decided that it is not only the peak that is worthy of a pilgrimage, Sri Lanka as a whole has all the qualities to attract people from around  the world to enjoy its shores.

Save precious Sightseeing time

Making, or at least planning your travel arrangements and tours in Sri Lanka will save precious sightseeing time once you arrive in the country. Travel services on the ground can be a little difficult to organise, so do a little online research to make sure the trips run smoothly.

  • The Sri Pada website has useful information for pilgrims and non-religious trips as well.
  • The official Sri Lanka Railways website helps you navigate the country’s vast train network.
  • On the Nuwara Eliya website, you can read about the history of the region as well as get inspiration for trips and excursions.
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