There are places and places to see in Sri Lanka but just about every place in Asia offers ruins, colonial cities, temples, and natural wonders. This puts a pilgrimage to Sri Pada, AKA Adam’s Peak, in a class in itself.
A huge footprint at the top of the mountain is said to be Adam’s (say the Muslims), Buddha’s (say the Buddhists), Siva’s (say the Hindus), and St. Thomas the Apostle’s (say the Christians). 300,000 or so climb from December to May; translates to 50,000 pilgrims a month, with the bigger number climbing during weekends and holidays. The pilgrimage guarantees in one experience, an immersion in the life, the culture, the spirituality, and the natural beauty of Sri-Lanka as well as a discovery of the person’s inner landscape.
The 8 of us were fresh from the 3rd conference of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia. This means that in one way or another, we thought of ourselves as theologians, or at least some women thought of us as fitting the category of theologians. In our group of 8 women plus our Sinhalese driver/guide, we had Josephine, a 72 year old retired principal from Myanmar; a Sinhalese lawyer Marini, who weighs more than 200 lbs; Julia, a Singaporean nun with a pronated foot who had some difficulty walking up and down stairs so used us as substitute for the walking stick that we said she didn’t need; Teresa, Vietnamese nun born the same year as I, she said she couldn’t make such a long climb; Jeane, professor of interreligious dialogue and eager for the climb; myself, a mountain-climber of sorts. The 72 year old and two others from Myanmar, Lourdes and Mary Jeya, were not originally included in the group but their flight out of Colombo wasn’t until the 29th and they had nothing to do until then. But how to keep from worrying about what the climb would do to a 72 year old, soft-spoken, very gentle retired principal who wasn’t even properly shod. . . .
Our path was traced out for us by more than 250 flourescent lamps along the trail snaking up the mountainside. A fast climber can fly up and still take 2 1/2 hours to reach the top, via this short route. Ordinary climbers are said to take 4 hours. Our guide was sure we’d need all the time we had, so the early start (he wanted us to leave at 9:00 p.m.) when we’d originally planned to leave at 2:00 a.m. I’d read enough about the freezing cold at the top. We didn’t want to be there too early.
At least ten big busloads and several vans of pilgrims started before we did. Our guide said that some had made a 12 hour drive just to get to where we were. Some were clearly family groups, others groups of youngsters or mixed groups of older persons. There were babies and toddlers who needed to be carried as well as women with their backs bent almost to their waist. There were groups composed only of men or only of women. Bald men and youth in orange robes were obviously monks but I wondered about the men and women in white robes.
About half of those we saw starting were dressed for the cold. My companions took out their jackets too and three or four bought knitted scarves from the stalls surrounding the huge parking area. Considering the fierce cold we expected, also the weather forcast for the day, I was wondering what rain or even just a drizzle would do to our plans. Even so, I did not reach for a raincoat. The heavy jacket I brought remained a weight in my backpack. The websites had said that the climb to the top would be exhausting and sweaty.
The pilgrimage begins with a bath in the icy waters of the mountain stream. Men stripped down to loinclothes and in the cold night air, bathed in water flowing from the overhead pipes jutting from the mountainside. The women bathed in the stream, using their sarongs or longjis or saris, whatever they call them, to cover themselves. Our Buddhist guide washed his face and hands. Lourdes, the young Tamil sister from Myanmar, did the same and wanted me to share the experience. Though I was ready to climb to the peak and wanted the pilgrimage to be as authentic a Buddhist experience as possible, I thought it was too inconvenient to go down the rocks to the water’s edge.
We started with a pose at a point where the stairway began and a sign said “Adam’s Peak.” Although the ascent traced out for us by the lights looked daunting, the beginning was an easy walk up, more path than stairway, with buddhist shrines and small market stalls to remind us that we were tourists or pilgrims and not mountain climbers.
Julia (Singapore) criticized the noise, the bustle, and the commercialism. Did she expect a quiet, 4 hour Buddhist meditative walk?
Several groups that we met on their way down had a pleasant chant for those of us who were going up. Many who were climbing had a ready reply, also a chant. When we were the only ones on the receiving end, I felt sorry we could not return whatever kindness was being extended to us. Those who identified us as tourists made life easier by greeting us with “Good Morning, how are you?” But there were rude remarks in Sinhalese – from Sinhalese youth – “see that nice juicy backside.” What we didn’t understand didn’t hurt us but our guide scolded us the one time two women went on their own. He said we should go together as one of the men around could easily drag an unfortunate loner to the bushes, and rape or molest her. I was happy with the warning because as group organizer, I was always keeping count and at one time, I had to go back to look for people who weren’t with us.
Marini, our 200 lb. Sinhalese host kept wanting to give up. Theresa, the Vietnamese was also slow. Julia, the Singaporean with the pronated foot alternated human walking sticks, sometimes me, sometimes another Filipina, Jeane. Josephine, the 72 year old from Myanmar surprised us all. I don’t think she was ever out of breath or that she ever had difficulty negotiating some of the more difficult parts of the ascent.
Whenever I saw the others feeling tired, I encouraged them by pointing at all the elderly women who were leaving us behind, and all the women carrying babies or little children. Twice we picked old, bent women to set the pace for us. One left us far behind very quickly. The other did well in the beginning but my companions reasoned that she had two able bodied men helping her. Three times we rested along the steps with her. The first time we kept a distance. The second time, we sat and laughed together but couldn’t converse because of the language barrier. My companions were grateful for the stop and groaned when we saw her moving to get up again. In the next stop, she was exhausted and stretched out on a bench to rest. Some of us slept there for a while too, and when we left, she was still sleeping. We never saw her again.
For food there wasn’t much to eat. At one point, Marini bought steaming hot boiled chickpeas (garbanzos) with chili and coconut for us to snack on. This was sold in a stall alongside salted peanuts (like we have in the Philippines) and corn on the cob. Resting places along the way sold the chickpeas, chapatis (I think that is what the small pancake like bread was), something that looked like a doughnut, toasted slices of loaf bread, and the usual junk food that city people enjoy. I was glad I thought of bringing crackers and chocolate bars from Bacolod, one for each climber. That, plus the chickpeas, half a big banana, some mints, and some roasted cashew nuts (from a grocery in Colombo) had to sustain us through the night (after my very light beef sandwich at 6:00 p.m.), past breakfast and until we had lunch at 2:30 p.m.
It was interesting to be climbing a mountain in the darkness of a country at war. We watched the hours as they went by, gauging our progress by the time we’d spent as well as by the distance we’d made between ourselves and the lights of the shops at the starting point. Of course there were always the lights that remained between us and the peak. The guide kept saying we were only 30 minutes to the top. Reminded me of other mountain climbs.
Near the end, Marini and one of the Myanmar women wanted to give up. The lamppost number was 120. I asked a shopowner near the “hotel” (that’s what the resting places were called, even though they were just covered areas enclosed with plastic sheets) what the number of the last lamppost was. When he said 130, I had what I needed to get them going again.
There wasn’t much at the top except for a small temple with the famous footprint for which we’d travelled so far. The big event seemed to be watching the famous sunrise. Everyone was facing East.
The bells kept ringing, as if to announce the coming of his holiness the Sun (learned later that everyone who arrives is supposed to ring a bell, once for each pilgrimage he or she has made to the shrine. It was one time I felt like a sunworshipper among sunworshippers. Unfortunately, as is usual with sunrises at 7,200 ft., there were clouds to hide much of the sun’s progress. The more awesome sight was watching the darkness and the fog lift from the lowlands and the surrounding hills. Made me sorry I didn’t have my old SLR camera with me.
Adam’s/Buddha’s/Siva’s/St. Thomas’ footprint itself was covered with an embroidered white cloth, so there was really nothing to see. Pious Buddhists queued to be able to pay their respects and make a donation. I joined the queue but did not kneel and bow so as to touch the cloth with my forehead (felt bad about that). I also did not leave any money there. I went out of the holy room with the footprint in time to see the puja procession (offering) going by and people crowding to touch the offerings which passed right in front of me. I wished I could reach out to touch the puja, just as all the pious buddhists were doing. But there I was, an outsider and an unbeliever for whom everything was just a curious show.
Buddhists sat on the cold floor to pray. I wished we could stay for a while and just BE there but there was a long journey ahead of us and some of us were feeling chilled (the 72 year old woman’s coat was in her bag which which was with the guide so when she reached the top, all she had was a knitted scarf. I lent her my jacket until I was able to retrieve hers. Because of the climb and a backpack on my back – where else- I felt envigorated by the mountain air.
The descent was trying, taking us many hours (from 7:00 to 12:00) past the point when all of us were saying, “ENOUGH!!!! (the guide said we’d be back in the van and ready for breakfast by 9:30). The 200 lb lawyer kept saying she was going to die, also that she had no control over her legs. I remembered the many times my knees gave way when we were going down the mountain in Bicol (2005). When we were still many hours away from rest, I couldn’t help wondering if making the pilgrimage was crazy and we should have opted for some other experience of Sri-Lanka. By then, it was too late for other choices. I comforted myself with the thought that as with other mountain climbs, the pain would pass but the beauty would remain with us forever.
Going down, we encouraged ourselves as we followed the numbers on the light posts from 130 down to 1.
It was a little past 9:00 a.m. when we reached lamp post number 1 but to our dismay, there remained an endless array of lampposts but buses and vans in parking areas were no where in sight. After a time, we had to go without thinking, sustained by my assurance that it is only when we struggle long past ENOUGH that we know for sure we’ve climbed a mountain. The worst part for me was looking for a washroom. The night before, a few of us had their toilet by the side of the stairway, nothing but a scarf to serve as a wall. There were comfort rooms here and there but my companions complained about the poor lighting and the poor sanitation. I had no need to go but in mid-morning, I was desperate and even the tea bushes beside the path looked inviting. Unfortunately, tea bushes are less than a meter high and aren’t very bushy. About 11:30, I asked a woman in the first concrete house we passed if I could use her toilet.
And so we made it back, me, the other Filipina, and the Teresa, the Vietnamese at about 11:30, the others around noon. There was nothing like a Mc Donalds in the vicinity so we had to travel the 2 hours to the hotel in Kitulgale before we could have lunch. We slept in the van and when we arrived in Kitulgale, used the extra hour the hotel gave us for sleeping. Lunch could wait.
That night (Jan. 27) we rode the plane to Singapore (0010, Jan. 28), a 3 hour flight but we arrived near 7:00 a.m., Singapore