Gaveshaka takes you on a pilgrimage
Time to climb the holy peak
In Sri Lanka, the different religious groups celebrate the numerous religious festivals and observances during specific periods of the year. For Buddhists it is now the season to visit Sri Pada, the holy peak where it is believed that the Buddha left His footprint during His third visit to Sri Lanka. Thus it is one of the sacred places of worship mentioned in the ‘Solosmasthana’ – the 16 places of veneration mentioned in the chronicles as places hallowed by the Buddha.

Sri Pada is 2,243 m (7,350 feet) high – the fifth highest mountain in Sri Lanka. Ahead of Sri Pada are Pidurutalagala (2,524 m), Kirigalpota (2,395m), Totapolakanda (2,357m) and Kudahagala (2,320m).

There is possibly no mountain more famous than Sri Pada. The depression right on top is being interpreted by at least three religions as being sacred to them. To the Buddhists, it is the footprint of the Buddha. For the Muslims, it is Adam’s Peak. They believe that Adam stood there for an age, on one foot to get over his disobedience, thus creating the depression. The Hindus call it ‘Sivam Adi (oli) Padam’. It is the Creative Dance of Siva that the ‘print’ calls to remembrance.

Sri Pada is also considered as the abode of Saman, a pre-Buddhist god, one of the four guardian deities of the country. The peak is called Samanala Kanda, which also means the mountain of the ‘samanalayo’, the butterflies. It is a well known fact that during the pilgrim season, clouds of yellow butterflies appear in the area converging from every possible direction upon the holy mountain.

Though climbing the peak is simple today, in the old days it was a very strenuous and hazardous journey. The devotees always went in groups. Preparations were made months ahead and a seasoned pilgrim who had done the trip earlier (he was called the ‘nade gura’- group leader) advised the devotees and planned the whole trip. There was so much fear that when pilgrims set forth on the pilgrimage, there were intense preparations. Some went to the extent of handing over their title deeds of the properties that belonged to them to a dear relative for fear of not being able to return due to the severe cold and strenuous climb. It was with great devotion that the pilgrimage was undertaken.

Even today, the villagers would prefer to be guided by an experienced hand and the devotees would strictly adhere to his advice. He warns them to guard their tongue.

“We are going to the country of the gods. You have to be careful not to annoy them. Otherwise the repercussions will be terrible”, is his advice. The first-timer is a kodu-karaya’ and he is given strict instructions to be extremely careful in what he does and what he says during the climb. “Kata varaddaganna epa”, is the warning given to him. In fact, in the early days a novice is not allowed to look either side lest he feels nervous when he sees the precipice. That was the era when there were no steps but only a pathway. Things are different today and the climb is pretty smooth.

‘Karunavai’ is the word one hears from the time you start the climb. ‘Karunavai, karunavai – Saman devindu karunavai’ is the constant chant. A party going up would chant ‘Negala bahina me nadeta – Sumana saman devi pihitai’ to which those coming down would reply ‘ Vandinta yana me nadeta – Saman devindu karunavai’. Often the chant is aimed at ‘nangi’, ‘malli’ ‘aiya’,’akka’ in place of ‘nade’.

There are at least three routes to Sri Pada. One is from Ratnapura via Carney Estate. Those who take this route have to walk about ten miles. The second from Kuruvita involves 12 miles on foot. It joins the first for the last three miles. The third is from Hatton via Maskeliya and the walk is only about four miles. There are steps throughout the route and is the most popular.

It’s common for the pilgrims to bathe at ‘seetha gangula’. As the name suggests, the water is quite cold but everyone feels the need to bathe and wear fresh white clothes before proceeding.

Many pilgrims try to reach the summit to watch the ‘ira sevaya’ – the dawn of the sun. One has to be lucky to have a clear sky without clouds to get a perfect view, which is a remarkable sight. If it is a full moon day or a weekend, there may be heavy crowds and one may not be able to reach the top in time. When the crowd is large, movement is very slow.

Once on top, everyone’s wish is to worship the sacred footprint – ‘sri pathula’ - by keeping one’s head on the slab, which covers the footprint. Though crowds gather, everyone gets a chance of doing it spending a few minutes chanting the ‘gathas’. Flowers are offered and oil poured to the ‘dolos mahe pahana - the eternal flame or the lamp which lights throughout the year. Once the ritual is over, each pilgrim rings the bell. The novice would ring it just once to indicate it’s his first visit. Others vary according to the number of visits.

One might feel exhausted during the return trip due to the climbing as well as the sleepless night spent on the way up. So it’s a slow trek to reach the bottom and return home.

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