Behold the sunrise behind the peak

By Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga

Most Lankans who have climbed Sri Pada, if they had clear weather, would have seen the sunrise from Sri Pada - a glorious spectacle. I am glad to have seen the sunrise from Sri Pada on two occasions in the early 1970's.

Even if they haven’t climbed the sacred peak, most Lankans have seen at least photographs of the shadow cast by Sri Pada at sunrise. If you are exactly at the tip of this shadow you will see the Sun rise behind the Sri Pada mountain.

The Sri Pada peak with a height of 2.2 km is about 64 km from Colombo and therefore seen at an altitude of about two degrees above the horizon. An engraving from an 1833 magazine shows Sri Pada prominently visible from the Colombo Fort harbour.

From Colombo the mountain covers a region just smaller than half a degree or apparent diameter of the Sun. On two days of each year, from any particular location from Kandana to Kalutara, you can see the silhouette of the Sri Pada mountain against the sun at sunrise, if it is not cloudy towards the eastern horizon. Weather which limits the Sri Pada season from December to May, makes this the best period to observe the sunrise as well.

The concept was used on the first stamp issued by the Republic of Sri Lanka on May 22. However I have never seen actual published photographs of sunrise behind Sri Pada.

In the mid 1970's low pressure in the Colombo water mains was just starting and so early one morning when I climbed on the roof to check the water level I saw the sunrise over the range of mountains, just south of Sri Pada. I estimated when the sun would rise behind Sri Pada and was able to observe the event a few days later in mid-February.

An engraving from an 1833 magazine showing Sri Pada prominently visible from the Colombo Fort harbour

On two or three occasions, I tried with a telephoto borrowed from Arthur Clarke to photograph the event, but was clouded out each time. At the last opportunity before leaving Lanka in 1978, I saw it, but again had no camera.

Returning to Sri Lanka in late 2004, I found that the skyline in Kollupitiya was now too crowded for a rooftop view. After moving to a condominium in Mount Lavina in late 2005, Sri Pada was again on my horizon from its flat-roof.

I tried a flat-roof in Nugegoda on March 7, 2006. It was perfectly clear till sunrise, and as the sun rose so did the foreground clouds to cover the peak. I tried again from another rooftop on March 25 and 26, with a bit of success through thick cloud. On March 17, 2007, when I went up to the flat-roof it was fairly cloudy. Sri Pada was not visible. I waited for the sunrise expecting maybe to take more shots through the thick clouds. However as the sun rose behind Sri Pada it appeared out of the mist silhouetted against the face of the Sun. As glorious a view as I had seen almost 30 years previously. March 17th of both 2008 and 2009 were clouded out and I am hoping for clear view in 2010.

Never try to observe or photograph the Sun without proper filters in front, particularly when the Sun is more than about 2 degrees above the horizon, as there is then insufficient atmospheric extinction.
Since there are many high-rise condominiums now in Colombo, from where one can have a clear view of Sri Pada, it’s a great opportunity to observe the sunrise behind the peak.

For more observation tips visit

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