Climbing the Holy Peak

Saturday, 5 March 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



By D.C. Ranatunga

Siripade samanaka kanda pene – Alokaya saman kule

Handapane mahavana diha gala – Sudu ridee kandan hamuwe

Untitled-2Veteran singer Vincent de Paul Peiris first sang this number about Sri Pada in the mid-1940s. After seven decades, the song is still popular. 

As students we sang it along with his other ever-popular ‘Bicycale Bicycale – Duppath apage bicycale’. The words were so simple – easy to remember. So were they meaningful – everyone appreciated. The tunes were uncomplicated – easy to pick up. They were among the most popular at singsongs during our university days in the fifties.

As he sang the Sri Pada song, we could visualise the sacred mountain brightened with moonlight, rivers flowing down towards the forests, devotees coming down after worshipping the Buddha’s footprint, the sound of the bell at the peak of the mountain with the pilgrims ringing it to indicate the number of times they have climbed Sri Pada, the chanting of ‘karunavai, karunavai’ – words of kindness blessing those who are either climbing up or are coming down, devotees paying homage to the Saman Deviyo – the guardian deity. One can even picture the butterflies doing tie annual trip to the peak. 

This scenario is repeated at this time every year. Since Unduvap full moon day in December right up to Vesak in May, pilgrims visit Sri Pada. In recent weeks there had been unprecedented crowds, according to media reports. Historically March has seen the largest number of pilgrims climbing the holy peak. Possibly the weather is best during this period. 

The months after May are avoided due to rain and heavy blowing. Of course, with weather patterns changing this age old accepted ‘theory’ may not be valid today. Nevertheless the pilgrims prefer to keep to the old practice.

Highly-venerated place of worship 

Sri Pada is one of the most venerated places of worship for the Buddhists – one of the 16 places hallowed by the Buddha.

Another popular singer of yesteryear, M.K. Vincent sang ‘Gautama siri paada vandimu samanala kande’ – a devotional song highlighting the visit of the Buddha.

Not many years ago, renowned filmmaker Tissa Abeysekera in his highly-acclaimed tele-drama, ‘Pitagamkarayo’ recreated the vast preparations for the ‘Sri pada vandanava’. The story was based on the lifestyle in the early 1940s when the pilgrimage to Sri Pada was considered an once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

The devotees who returned were considered extremely lucky. The trip was so hazardous. The weather was cold even during the season. The climb would be risky with no proper steps. The path was not lit up. The pilgrims carried ‘pandam eli’ – handmade torches out of dried cadjan leaves. Everyone preferred to climb at night to reach the peak in time to see the ‘ira sevaya’ – the sun at dawn, which to them, was paying homage to the Footprint!

The sunrise produces the famous spectacle of the Shadow of the Peak. This is how it has been described in ‘Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller’: The north-east winds that blow in the pilgrim season have laid below, some thousands of feet below it, a layer of misty cloud. Over that the sun casts the vast dark triangular shadow of the huge summit pyramid. Its point lies, at first, upon the infinitely distant horizon, then, as the sun waxes, races backward, foreshortening the shadow, until it is swallowed altogether in the rock of the peak itself.

A less advertised phenomenon (because it usually occurs outside the pilgrim season) is also occasionally to be seen: the even more fantastic spectacle of the so called ‘Spectre of the Brocken’. When the cloud layer happens to be vertically rather than horizontally piled, the intruder on the summit terrace occasionally sees before him an enormously magnified image – including himself – often encircled by a halo of rainbow hues.”

The trip to Sri Pada in early days was so strenuous that the pilgrims were not even sure of coming back. So much so, some even transferred their properties to their closest kith and kin before setting off!

‘Pitagamkarayo’ was a story set in the Kelani Valley and vividly portrayed the planning that is done months ahead before setting out on the pilgrimage to Sri Pada. A seasoned person – the ‘nade gura’ set about the task of organising the entire trip from selecting the devotees, what they should bring along with them, how they should behave themselves, how they should avoid uttering certain words which may annoy the gods, what food items they should avoid during the journey, the need to remain vegetarians and so on.

Adam’s Peak to many

“There is no object more familiar to the inhabitants of Ceylon or one that makes a deeper impression upon the multitudes who visit her shores than the lofty cone which bears the name of our first parent; and it may be said without fear of contradiction that among all the mountains in the world invested by tradition with superstitious veneration none has stirred the emotions of so many of our fellow-subjects as Adam’s Peak.” So wrote Henry W Cave in ‘Ceylon Along the Train Track’, the superb travel guide he published in 1910.

He adds that the origin of its sacred character has been the subject of considerable research and greater conjecture.

“There is no doubt that the legends take their rise in the mark on the summit resembling the impress of a gigantic human foot. This the Buddhists devoutly worship as the sacred footprint of Gautama, while the Hindoos equally claim it as that of Siva and the Mohammedans, borrowing the history from the Jews, as that of Adam. Thus do he adherents of three great religions, to the number of 800,000,000 of our fellow-creatures, vie with one another in veneration of the lonely Peak,” Cave writes.

He continues: “As in pilgrim bands they ascend the mighty cone their hearts are moved and they regard its rugged paths as steps into heaven. From all parts of Asia thousands annually flock up the steep and rocky track, enduring privation and hardship for the good of their souls. Some of the very old people of both sexes are borne aloft upon the shoulders of their stalwart sons, others struggle upwards unaided, until fainting by the way, they are considerately carried with all haste in their swooning condition to the summit and forced into an attitude of worship at the shrine to secure the full benefits of their pilgrimage before death should supervene; others never reach the top at all, but perish from cold and fatigue; and there have been many instances of pilgrims losing their lives by being blown over precipices or falling from giddiness induced by a thoughtless retrospective when surmounting especially dangerous cliffs.”

Things have changed over the years and not much care is taken in climbing Sri Pada. For many, particularly the younger generation, it’s yet another picnic.