It must have been the 2000th step or thereabouts. Save for the lights meekly illuminating the trail, clouds above ensured a dark mysterious environment. In the darkness of the night, people climbed the mountain with ruffled breath — complete madness! Quietness of the crisp predawn atmosphere was broken by the occasional chants of “Om Buda” (or at least that was what it sounded to me) by the Buddhist pilgrims.
I sat down to get my breath back. How was it that I was climbing Sri Pada when I did not have much inclination to do so, just a day before?
Well, this is how it happened.
I was in a room with a fellow traveller who that day snored much louder than he usually does. I tossed and turned in bed waiting for the snoring to subside, but that relief did not come, and before I knew it, it was 2am.
Then I heard doors opening and closing. Other people staying in the hotel were leaving for the climb. I questioned, stay sleepless in the room or climb Sri Lanka’s highest peak, with Buddha’s sacred footprint on the summit? I opted for the latter.
I quietly came out of the bed and left the room. It was a short walk from Dalhousie, where our hotel was located, to the Hatton-Nallathanni trailhead, where the Sri Pada climb starts. Sri Pada trail is a paved path with steps all the way to the top, an elevation gain of around 2000 feet.
Like Dalhousie, many places in Sri Lanka bear Scottish names, and there is good reason for it. When the clever Englishmen found Sri Lankan highlands to be suitable for the cultivation of tea, jungles were cleared, land was grabbed from the locals, and Scottish entrepreneurs came to establish and manage large tea estates. These Scottish merchants invariably named the new places after their surnames or the towns of Scotland.
Whereas the early colonisers only exploited whatever was available, the English worked on completely reengineering the existing economies — or more honestly, messing up the local economies for the benefit of the colonisers.
And this is what most countries gaining independence from the yoke of colonialism inherited: local economies plugged into the global scene without much benefit to the local people. Nations that broke from the past and made drastic changes to their economic setups were able to prosper; others still suffer under the colonial legacy.
I kept climbing, resting every 20 minutes or so. The trail was dotted on both sides with snack stalls and stores selling religious paraphernalia, but, as I climbed higher, the encounters with these shops became less frequent.
Climbing up I wondered why holy places need to be high when many religions believe God to be omnipresent. Why not a temple, or a mosque at the bottom of a pit? Desiring physical elevation of holy places must be our anthropomorphic bias. Just like a man can see far and wide from an elevated position, God too must occupy a high place to keep an eye on us all.
My guidebook said the footprint on top of the mountain I was climbing was sacred to major religions, and that the Muslims considered it the footprint of Prophet Adam. Not sure which Muslims the writer had asked; all the ones I knew had no idea Prophet Adam’s footprint existed in Sri Lanka.
This false information was not limited to the guidebook. I found it all over the internet too. It is the same kind of stuff that is repeated within certain circles without having the facts verified.
Over three hours later I was finally at the top, and was definitely not alone. Throngs of people were there, people of religious convictions in majority, but tourists too in large numbers.
Sri Pada is over 7,000 feet above the sea level; it was cold there. We were surrounded by mountain peaks, but all of them were below us — we were on the highest one. In a distance, light on the other side of a mountain indicated where the sun was going to come out from. We all looked in that direction and waited for the sun’s birth. The light grew, as a bright tip of the sun made its appearance, but the subdued brightness was no match to the ferocity of a full grown sun.
The bright spot grew in size and soon it was a small semicircle object with most of the sun still hidden behind the peak in the east.
It took a while for the sun to wrestle itself off the mountains and appear bright and clear in the sky. It was a magnificent sight, with loud music and Buddhist religious chants adding to the magic of the atmosphere. People put their hands together and prayed to the sun. It was the most primitive and arguably the most pragmatic type of worship — knowing that the sun is indeed the main cultivator and nurturer of life on earth.
And the sacred footprint? I must confess I did not find it.
The focus of religious enthusiasm on that peak was a temple on the summit. I followed Buddhist devotees to see if the alleged footprint was inside the temple.
There, people reached a small doorstep and prostrated in reverence. I peeked inside to see if the sacred footprint was the object of their worship, but I did not see anything resembling a footprint. And then it was time for me to move on, to give room to the next person in line.
It was now time to go back. The thought of reaching back to the warmth of the hotel and enjoying a breakfast of omelette, bread with butter and jam, and lots of tea was appealing. Descent will be easy, or so I thought.
But it was not; it was taxing on my knees. Still, that pain was nothing compared to the anguish I went through when more than an hour and a half later I found out I was on the wrong path; the one I was descending would take me to Rutnapura, far away from Dalhousie.
How far? More than 100 kilometers.
It was insane! I felt like crying; crying like a little child. Going down, the trail had not appeared too familiar, but then I had told myself I had climbed up in the dark, it must have looked different at that time.
After the realisation sank in I did not have much choice but to climb back up and then take the right path, I turned back and started the climb —and I hated every step of it.
I was told there was a shortcut to the right path, but that shortcut was not as short as I had anticipated, hardly a few hundred feet before the peak. I still opted to take the shortcut, whatever I could do to save myself some energy in the climbing up and climbing down routine that I had grown completed tired of by then.
I finally reached the shortcut. The sign in Sinhala said it was the road to Hatton. But there was no road. It was a rough hilly path cleared through thick vegetation.
A few hundred feet down that trail I realised I was alone there. There was no one in sight, front or back. What if someone comes to rob me? I wrestled with a tree and snapped a branch I could use as a stick. That stick was my defense; and I leaned on it to ease the pressure on my knees as I climbed down.
After what appeared to be eternity, I finally reached the right trail. Once again I was surrounded by people. By then my knees hurt like they had never hurt before. Every step down, a small bomb of pain would explode in one knee or the other and distress would spread out in all directions.
A day earlier, a fellow traveller had wondered if there was a cable car to the top. I had made fun of that idea, telling them that the climb was a pilgrimage; it was not an amusement park. But all that banter was so yesterday. I really honestly, totally, wanted a cable car there, right at that moment.
But there was no cable car. Was there a helicopter service that could give me a ride down? No. Was there a hotel where I could check in, rest for a day, and complete the journey down the next day? No, there was no such facility. I had to complete the pilgrimage just like everybody else was doing it. The fact that I initially took the wrong path down did not give me any extra credit. But there were kind people. One person gave me a balm to rub on my knees. A group of young women stopped by to give me a sugary white ball of a dessert to eat — it was a part of their offering.
I was supposed to be back at the hotel by 8:30am. I reached there after 2 pm. Fellow travellers asked how I felt. I replied, “One day I will look back to remember the pilgrimage with fond memories, and write about it, but today that day seems very far away. Today it feels like hell and all I want in life is a bed I can lie down on, with no intention to get up for days.”