It was the Medin Poya weekend in March. Fearing that Sri Pada would be crowded that Tuesday, I made inquiries before setting off. "It was bad during the weekend. Most of the visitors had to park their vehicles about 5 km before Nallathanniya and some of those who missed the shuttle service had to walk to the starting point of the climb," said a guard at the Hatton police post confirming my fears.
It was a relatively calm night with a cloudy sky. Luckily, there wasn't a big crowd that day as the human flood seems to gather mostly during the weekends. We made good progress and without much drama reached the last part of the climb - Mahagiridamba around 5.45 a.m. The buildings at the peak were close at hand and I heaved a sigh of relief that we were only 10 minutes away from the summit.
It was a mistake – for seconds later we hit the queue.
The minutes ticked by as we waited, willing ourselves to be patient. The queue had not moved an inch. Nobody descended either. We were jammed at the last few yards.
In the background, the sun jumped out from the clouds making an unceremonial sunrise for those who were shivering in the queue facing the cold gusty wind. “It is absurd. We climbed this far without any trouble- why this block even when there is no big crowd?” lamented a weary pilgrim.
With frustration building up, a few people jumped to the other side which is dedicated only for those descending. The pathway at Mahagiridamba is narrow, so one side is reserved for those ascending while the other is only for those descending. The moment you break this ‘one-way’ rule, it becomes a huge block with both queues going nowhere.
Luckily, somebody in the crowd had foreseen this and prevented the impatient ones from taking this route up. An hour passed and still there was no movement. Suddenly a policeman appeared and tried to clear the impasse. Heated arguments were exchanged with those who wanted to rest at the peak longer and with those who climbed up the wrong way. The loudspeaker at the summit meanwhile was broadcasting the value of peacefulness of the mind, but even the chill wind didn’t help to cool the boiling tempers of those who were below.
Finally, the queue started moving. Inch by inch, we progressed. It took more than two hours for us to reach the summit. I wondered what had caused this unnecessary block. The sight of an unusual figure at the peak – a cameraman revealed the reason. Part of the summit - udamaluwa, was blocked for broadcasting a live bana sermon.
“Yes, it is good to have a live TV programme from the peak, but we were kept waiting in the queue in the freezing cold unnecessarily for nearly three hours. There should a proper way to manage the situation,” said Sasanka, a tired and frustrated visitor who had come all the way from Colombo.
Ven. Dampahala Seelananda Thera, the Chief Incumbent and caretaker of Sri Pada attributed the block on Medin poya to the closure of udamaluwa for 45 minutes to facilitate the rituals. Medin Poya is popular as the poya of Sri Pada, so there are many religious activities held at the summit, he said.
The Chief Incumbent also pointed out that this over-visitation becomes worse during long weekends. The 2009 season has been particularly crowded, he said, perhaps due to the many long weekends occurring this time. They had recorded nearly 100,000 visitors on some long weekends, he added.
Those who climbed on February also faced a similarly trying situation. The jam-packed queue extended upto Indikatupana, which is nearly two km away from the summit. “There were times that it took more than an hour to move one step,” commented Ranjith who works at a boutique along the way and said the boutique floor became a temporary shelter for those who were exhausted.
The OIC of Nallathanniya Police P.K. Hettiarachchie has his own explanation for the problem. Most visitors target to be at the peak to see the sunrise which is a special Sri Pada ritual. Those who reach the peak early too want to wait until the sunrise. Thus the summit – udamaluwa fills up with people and results in others in the queue to the summit who have also timed their climb to see the sunrise having to wait on the steps, he said.
“Sri Pada is a sacred place. Devotees are tired and want to rest longer at the peak, hence the police find it difficult to be forceful sometimes,” the OIC added, pointing out the difficulties they face in controlling the crowd. The police do their best to allocate more resources on crowded days, but it is a difficult task, he says.
Parking facilities are also inadequate during days when there is a flood of visitors. The vehicle parks at Nallathanniya can house about 350 vehicles, and other vehicles have to be directed to a park near Ricarton, about 5 km away.
The long holidays are still on this year’s Sri Pada season calendar. But long weekends are best avoided and if unavoidable, start your climb early to avoid getting stuck in the queue. The climb is 6 km and takes about four and half hours on average.
Healers at the top
The Sri Pada climb is not for the faint-hearted. It is indeed a journey that tests physical fitness. But, the presence of first-aid camps along the way is reassuring for those who experience sudden difficulties.
The Red Cross, St. John’s Ambulances Services, the Saukyadana Movement and Siddalepa are some of the first aid camps set up during Sri Pada season to help those in need. “People getting cramps is very common, but sometimes we get heart-patients too,” said Udaya Kumara of the St. John’s Ambulance Service, which has a base near Indikatupana.
Visitors should do the climb at their own pace and take adequate breaks on the way. If someone has any ailment, they should consult their doctor before undertaking the climb and bring their medication with them in case of emergency,” advises a volunteer first aid worker at Sri Pada.