A few hundred steps into the Sri Pada pilgrimage route the path steepens. I stick to the far left of the path as I go up, greatly outnumbered by the flood of people coming down. An elderly woman in an all-white sari hobbles down the crumbling stone steps locked arm in arm with her teenage grandson. A woman in her third trimester descends just as slowly, her patient husband dutifully clutching her by the arm as he negotiates every irregular step for them. Countless parents lug their passed out toddlers over their shoulders or carry them in their arms, the dead weight making for an exhausting journey.Pilgrims lay stretched out in makeshift rest houses along the way. The wooden benches will not keep them there for long, just enough to replenish their energy before they make their way back down. Some tend to their aching muscles with the local Ayurvedic equivalent of Tiger Balm while others line the side of the path head down resting on their knees for a much-needed micro-break.
These pilgrims are among the thousands every day who climb the mountain called Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak, depending on who you ask. For more than 1000 years Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus have made the trip to the top of this mountain in central Sri Lanka. The island’s majority Buddhist population reveres Sri Pada for the footprint the Buddha left on the peak as he went off to paradise. But the island’s Muslims contest the Buddhists’ claim, calling it Adam’s Peak to commemorate the spot where Adam landed when he was cast out of paradise. Christians believe the footprint belonged to St. Thomas and finally, Hindus say it was actually Shiva’s footprint.
Whoever’s footprint it was, Sri Lanka’s diverse religious groups all climb the mountain day and night, respecting each others individual spiritual traditions. With four of the world’s major religions peacefully climbing the mountain, Sri Pada is considered a sanctuary for all faiths. In fact, according to Ven. S. Dhammika, no mountain, not even Mount Sinai or Kailash, has been revered by so many people from so many different spiritual traditions, for as long as Sri Pada.
I had opted for a 3 a.m. start to catch sunrise after hearing about the spectacular view from up top. The path is lit by overhead lamps that stretch up into the night sky—light, light, light, star. We truly are walking a path to the stars on this clear, pleasantly cool night. “Merry Christmas,” a young Sri Lankan man greets me as he descends, guessing that my white skin must mean I’m Christian. He’s right. Though I’m not a practicing Christian, the decision to spend this Christmas, my first away from home, wasn’t an easy one. I give him a big smile and respond to the greeting.
I stop at one of the many roti shops along the way and talk to one of the few non-Sri Lankan pilgrims, a young Japanese woman named Nao (pronounced “now”). I remark on the auspiciousness of her name. I am grateful for this reminder to be in the now to fully appreciate this memorable occasion.
Approaching the top of the mountain, the numbers turn. Most had been going down, but now the majority of people are heading up. I reach the top where hundreds are standing on the steps filling every square foot of the peak while others perch on the ledge of the lower temple, all facing eastwards in anticipation of the sun’s arrival.
The first glow of the rising sun pierces the darkness of the night as I take up my position among the pilgrims. We stand in near silence as the sun rises. Deep hues of red and pink cut holes through a pocket of low-hanging cloud as a nearby lake reflects the image of the clear, blue sky in its perfect stillness.
Church bells from the nearest village fill my ears on this Christmas morning. As hundreds of pilgrims shuffle past me to pay their respects and give their offerings to Sri Pada at the top, I sit on the peak staring out at the panorama of lush mountainous jungle as I feel the sun’s rays quickly warming up the crisp morning air.
I eventually make it to the temple to offer my donation to the Buddha. I queue beside a young guy from Colombo who came on a road trip with his friends. I remark how amazing it is that a group of guys in their twenties use their holiday time to take a trip where the source of entertainment is spending time with the Buddha. We arrive at the front of the line. Two attendants quickly usher us through as I drop my donation and bow to the Buddha. The whole donate-bow rush seems kind of weird, especially when it’s presided over by a monk sitting in the temple’s alcove raking the cash and coins like a Vegas dealer, but it’s really the only conceivable way this popular pilgrimage can go down.
Sri Pada is an island-wide pilgrimage. Over the five-month pilgrimage season, a good chunk of the island’s population make it up at least once. To Sri Lankans it’s more a rite than a choice. Most take a long bus ride from their homes, do the long hike—often all at night—then head immediately home. While it may be uncomfortable to climb the mountain in the rain or inconvenient to take time off their busy work schedules, they just do it.
As I make my descent I meet Gayan, another guy road tripping from Colombo with his crew. We talk Buddhism the whole way down. He puts the pilgrimage in perspective. The Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition is to offer flowers to the Buddha. By offering flowers, which are a symbol of perfection, he offers his greatest virtues to the Buddha and in so doing connects to those virtues in himself. He does the pilgrimage every year at this time as a way of extending that offering over a period of several hours rather than several minutes at regular temple visits. His view, however, is just one of many—the view varies as much among people of the same spiritual tradition as between them.
Pilgrimages are representative of the spiritual path in general. Why bother doing it? It’s like asking “Who am I?” It’s not a question that needs to be asked in order to live, but in doing so people can come to their own version of the truth.
Truth for me as a practicing Buddhist comes through a Buddhist lens. But as a born Christian, Christmas holds special significance. This day brought the two together in a special way. As I spent the day in quiet contemplation, I saw the different faiths gathered together showing their devotion. One religion or another it doesn’t matter. Contemplation and devotion are the same no matter the spiritual tradition.