Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Sri Pada – ‘The abode of the gods’by Walter Rupesinghe

The Sri Pada season is on again. During the next five months until Wesak Poya, hundreds of thousands of devotees will climb the 7362 foot mountain to pay homage to the sacred footprint of Lord Buddha.

Although Sri Pada is not the highest mountain in the country it is certainly the most conspicuous. Many a traveller by ship to the West has recorded that as the shores of Sri Lanka faded away and they cast a lasting, longing look behind they could see on a clear day the majestic form of Sri Pada almost waving to them in fond farewell. Such is the magic spell that this holy mountain casts on everyone who is privileged to see it and also to climb it.

The first reference to Sri Pada is found in the Mahawansa, the Great Chronicle. It states that the Buddha on his third visit to Sri Lanka after preaching the doctrine at Kelaniya, "rising aloft into the air displayed the impression of his foot on the mountain Samanakuta by imprinting it there. On the side of the mountain he with his disciples having enjoyed the rest of noon day departed for Dighavapi".

Although there is no archeological evidence of pilgrims worshipping the sacred foot print before the 12th century there is reference to the devotion of some Sinhala Buddhists during the period before the 12th century in the Tamil Buddhist poem, "Manimekalai" and the writings of Chinese pilgrims who visited this country, (Senerath Pranavithana’s "The God of Adams Peak").

The first Sinhala king who is mentioned in the Mahawansa as having paid obeisance to the sacred footprint and as having improved the environs is King Vijaya Bahu 1 (Ad 1055 to 1100). A detailed account of the work undertaken by him has been recorded in the Ambegamuwa inscription which is near the sixth milepost on the Nawalapitiya, Hatton road. The services rendered by the king to the shrine of the sacred footprint were the institution of a refectory, the suspension of a network over the sacred footprint, construction of a large ‘prakara’ around the terrace of the shrine and the donation of lands to the shrine (The Archaeological Department’s register of ancient mounments).

Parakrama Bahu the Great had also visited the shrine with a retinue of followers and worshipped the sacred foot print. He had offered valuable gifts at the shrine and carried out several improvements.

King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196) excelled King Vijaya Bahu in his devotion to the sacred foot print. He had made a number of improvements. A record of the work done by him is engraved on a rock in the cave named Bhagavalena, about a 100 feet below the summit on the Kuruwita route to the mountain.

Successive kings had worshipped at the sacred footprint and done everything they could to provide for the needs of pilgrims.

John Still and Rev. Stanley Senior

In his book "Jungle Tide" John Still says that Sri Pada must be one of the vastest and the most widely revered cathedrals of the human race. He says, "I have climbed Sri Pada many a time when pilgrims by thousands wound up its rugged paths by torchlight singing as they went. I have camped with them in sheltering caves and with them I have kept vigil on the cold windswept summit waiting for the rising sun. And he adds, "there were no policemen there and no one in the form of authority at all, so far as I could learn; but the place was holy ground and the tolerance of the pilgrims seemed a thing that might very well have been studied by Western ecclesiastics with honour and amazement and perhaps even in shame".

Rev. Walter Stanley Senior, an Anglican Minister and a passionate lover of Sri Lanka, whose ashes are buried in the little churchyard on the hill above Haputale town, recalls his visits to Sri Pada. He had reached the summit and proudly rung the bell four times for His four visits and looked on in amazement when a middle aged woman had rung it thirty one times! He has expressed eloquently the irresistible lure of Sri Pada when he wrote,

"The climb is always an effort except to the Halangodas and the Josephs in the heyday of their youth; and near the top one always said ‘never again’. Still more did one say it at the Ambalama half way down the descent when ones toes almost burst through ones boots."

"But let six months pass and lo! the Peak is once more weaving spells and a ‘Spirit in one’s feet’ is drawing one back into its charmed circle" (The call of Lanka).

How very true! Ask anyone who has climbed Sri Pada and he will tell you that this is so.

My experience of Sri Pada

Although I am not a Buddhist I have climbed Sri Pada on five occasions because I firmly believe that Sri Pada belongs to everyone irrespective of caste or creed. The holy mountain has cast a magic spell over me urging me to return again and I looked forward to many more visits to this great cathedral of the human race. Unfortunately, with the passage of time I was afflicted by the Vertigo which put an end to my plans. Climbing the mountain is one thing but if the Vertigo struck while descending the steep slopes it might have proved fatal. Nevertheless, Sri Pada will always be the mountain of my dreams.

On my first visit to the mountain in 1949, I joined a group of students from the Maradana Technical College who were led by a frail lecturer who had not been to Sri Pada before and was determined to make it to the top. Assisted by some wiry students who virtually carried him all the way up he reached the summit and paid homage to the sacred foot print. Thereafter with his face lit up by the morning sun he rang the bell and exclaimed "at last I have realised my life’s dream".

There was also the time when two members of our party fell ill. We had to dose them with Disprin and coffee and leave them behind in an Ambalama half way up the mountain and proceed on our journey.

I also remember the occasion when a few of us on the way to Sri Pada stayed with the late Ananda Madena, manager of Norwood estate and his charming wife Chitrangani. We left for Sri Pada just before midnight. As we reached the summit of the hill overlooking the Maskeliya valley we were thrilled to see the trail of golden lights going right up to the summit. It was truly magnificent this token of a nation’s gratitude to God Saman for ensuring the successful completion of the Laxapana hydro electric project.

Ananda insisted that before we started on the climb proper we should purify ourselves in the icy cold waters of Seetha Gangula. When we hesitated he put us to shame by pointing to the old and infirm men and women who were bathing in the stream. We followed suit. We came out of the water with shivering bodies and chattering teeth but we were happy because we had imbibed the true spirit of the pilgrimage.

Sri Pada...

On almost every occasion on which I climbed Sri Pada when my aching feet almost refused to go any further I recited to myself the following verse from a poem of the great Rabindranath Tagore. This urged me to move on:

"Far away glitters the temple spire

There sounds the song of the dying day

In its melody mingles all that is beautiful

All that touches life along the pilgrim’s path

With the gesture of perfection

I hear the refrain

It is not far, not far away".

It was only on one occasion that I was fortunate enough to witness the brilliant sunrise front the summit. On the other occasions a bank of cloud hung over the eastern sky. The sunrise is one of the most beautiful sights in the world enhanced by the giant and awesome shadow of the peak failing on the mountains behind us. Henry Cave another great lover of this country vividly described it in the following words;

"Under peculiar atmospheric conditions that frequently present themselves the curious phenomenon known as the shadow of the peak is observable at dawn from the summit of the mountain. The first faint beams reveal the fleecy shroud of mist covering the world below and as the welling light grows clearer, up rises the mighty shadow. Like a distant pyramid it stands for many seconds; the nearer and nearer ever increasing in size and distinctness as the rays of light broaden over the horizon, it advances towards us like a veil, through which the distant forests and plains are distinctly visible, till at length it seems to merge in its mighty parent and instantly vanish"

One late January evening I was driving to Ratnapura and stopped at the Kuruwita bridge. The sky was clear and I could see the lights of Sri Pada peeping over the neighboring mountains. I made up my mind that some day I would climb the mountain along this more difficult and arduous route through Kuruwita which meant climbing from almost sea level unlike the Maskeliya climb which begins from the 4000 foot high Hatton Plateau. The recurring Vertigo put an end to my plans.

Environmental pollution

It is with a great deal of reluctance that I have to strike a sad note. Our pilgrims are so devout and caring but they do not think much about polluting the environment around Sri Pada. Perhaps they might plead that necessity has no law. The answer to this is to provide more toilet facilities with running water and waste bins at more regular intervals. These must be well publicized and appeals made to the public to use them. The co-operation of the pilgrims is essential if this holy mountain is to preserve its pristine purity. I have been ashamed to hear the comments of some foreign tourists about the unbearable stench on the way up the mountain and the very bad state of the toilets in the summit area.

I am aware that a lot of good work is being done to remedy the situation but it would come to nothing without the co-operation of the pilgrims.

What of the younger generation?

While we of the older generation cherish and venerate these unique religious assets how many of the younger generation, especially in the urban and semi urban areas have visited Sri Pada and seen and experienced for themselves the exemplary, faith of the pilgrims, some of them old and infirm, who brave the elements and wend their weary way to the summit chanting "Karunavai" to worship the sacred foot print. If they climb the mountain once and capture the spirit of the Sri Pada Pilgrimage and also learn about its history and significance, they will want to go back again and again. For Sri Pada is the abode of the gods.

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