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Mystery, awe and companionship in a long walk up Sri Lanka's Sri Pada

The cone shaped shadow of Adam's Peak, pictured through the temple's fence, is seen over the surrounding hills just after dawn, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

The sun has just set behind the walls of Galle, Sri Lanka, and the muezzin of the Fort Meeran mosque in the old part of the town starts his chant. The All Saints Church, one of the town's historical buildings, lies only 200 meters away from the mosque. It's not uncommon in this country to find mosques, catholic churches and Buddhist temples within a stone's throw of each other.

    According to the last census in 2011, 70.2 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 12.6 percent are Hindu, 9.7 percent are Muslim, and 7.4 percent are Catholic. And in the island nation's southwest there is a mountain that perfectly symbolizes this religious melting pot. Adam's Peak, or Sri Pada, has an important meaning for all the main religions, and it was even worshipped by Sri Lanka's first human inhabitants.

    A part of the ancient path is still visible next to the newer concrete steps along the old Ratnapura road, on March 3, 2016. (Mainichi)

    The Buddhist temple at the top of the mountain is home to a giant "footprint" measuring about 173 centimeters long, with a width of 79 centimeters at the toes and 74 centimeters at the heel. What's more, it is believed to be set with jewels hidden beneath the rock. According to local Buddhist tradition, the print was left by Buddha himself during the third and final of his legendary visits to Sri Lanka 2,580 years ago. It is believed that the first person to discover the "Sacred Footprint" was King Valagambahu (104-76 BC) while he was in exile in the mountain wilderness.

    Though Buddhists make up the majority of those who revere the footprint, Sri Pada is also a holy site for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. When Portuguese Christians came to the island in the 16th century, they claimed the impression was the footprint of St. Thomas who, according to legend, first brought Christianity to Sri Lanka. Hindus believe footprint is that of Shiva. And finally, Muslims record it as being made by Adam when he stood on one foot for a thousand years of penance. It's from this tradition that the name "Adam's Peak" comes.

    Beside the religious symbolism, Sri Pada is also a remarkable natural destination. At 2,243 meters tall, it is the second highest mountain of Sri Lanka, and around it is the some 22,380 hectares of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. The forest there remains a unique example of biodiversity in Sri Lanka, and UNESCO named it a Natural World Heritage Site in 2010.

    Hundreds of thousands of local and foreign devotees belonging to all four major religions -- Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims -- trek to Sri Pada's summit each year during the pilgrimage season, which runs from December to May. The flow of devotees is particularly intense in the middle of the season, and the mountaintop can get very crowded. According to the Sri Lankan paper Daily News, approximately 20,000 people scale Adam's Peak every weekend during the pilgrimage season.

    Damayanthi, right, and her daughter Lavinia rest in an "ambalama" (rest hut) during the hard climb up the Ratnapura road, on March 3, 2016. (Mainichi)

    It is possible to access Sri Pada from 3 different paths. The 5-kilometer long "Hatton road" on the north face is the most popular and the most accessible. The most devoted and courageous pilgrims, however, trek 8.5 kilometers up the southern side, from the ancient Ratnapura road. The journey was once extremely difficult and dangerous, but the installation of guardrails and electric lighting has made it easier, especially as the trek is traditionally made at night so pilgrims can take in the sunrise when they arrive at the peak. There are also sheltered rest stops called "ambalamas" about every 1.5 kilometers. These ambalamas sell all kinds of traditional food and drinks, and are suitable for an overnight stay. Some pilgrims in fact prefer to stop half way, rest a few hours, and then go on.

    The path begins in the forest, and solitary climbers setting out for the summit must summon the courage to walk the wood in the deep darkness of the night, especially if they are taking the less beaten Ratnapura road. They rely on meeting other pilgrims along the way.

    A crowd of pilgrims waits along the temple's eastern edge for the sunrise, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)
    A crowd of pilgrims waits along the temple's eastern edge for the sunrise, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

    Damayanthi Gallassage Dona, a 26-year-old single mother from Kalutara, is taking a rest in an "ambalama." She is climbing with her 4-year-old daughter, her mother, and her sister. She works in a seafood plant in Colombo and she has taken a couple of days off to trek Sri Pada. She is climbing the steps barefoot, her daughter on her shoulders.

    "It is better to walk in a group, as a thief could suddenly appear from the darkness of the forest trying to assault lonely pilgrims," she tells me, and advises I join them. "I'm climbing for the fifth time, and it is the second time for my little daughter. I'm climbing to pray in front of the Lord Buddha footprint. I'm Buddhist, but my sister is Christian. She married a Christian boy," she added. It is common in Sri Lanka for members of the same family to be in different religions.

    The cone shaped shadow of Adam's Peak is seen projected over the surrounding hills just after dawn, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

    The climb gets harder as you get closer to the peak. In some places, it is still possible to see the steps cut into the rock in the 11th century. People have been climbing this holy mountain for at least 1,000 years. Further along the way, a group of young devotees joins the small group. One of them offers to take Damayanthi's baby on his shoulders.

    "Spontaneous groups of pilgrims often form during the walk. They help and support each other during the hard climb. It quite often happens that a person starts out on the path alone, but they finally reach the top with other people they met on the way," says Siri, a 32-year-old waiter from Haputale.

    Bikkhus (monks) prepare for the dawn ceremony in the temple on Adam's Peak, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

    "Only" 500 steps are left, and Sri Pada appears almost mystical before me. The glow of firelight flashes around the temple. An enormous half-moon hangs behind the peak, and the full tone of a bell emanates the top, the note quivering in this magic night. Damayanthi and her family decide to give up for now. They are too tired, and Damayanthi's daughter vomited from the exertion. They will sleep a couple of hours in an "ambalama" and try again just before dawn. I made the last effort alone and finally reached the peak at 4 a.m., after about 8 hours of climbing.

    There is a dense crowd on the top. Many pilgrims are sleeping inside a big room next to the temple, while others try to rest outside, lying on the floor. There is a surreal atmosphere as other pilgrims form a huge queue in front of the steps of the tiny chapel hosting the sacred footprint. As the sky brightens, the crowd turns east and then stands perfectly still. No one dares take even one step. And finally, dawn. This is an age-old tradition linked with Sri Pada and commonly called "Ira Sevaya" -- loosely translated as "homage to the sun."

    A crowd waits on the steps of the small chapel hosting the footprint, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

    While the huge group of pilgrims looks east, the few foreigners prepare their cameras. They seem more attracted on what is happening on the west side. As the sun starts to rise, Sri Pada offers a breathtaking natural phenomenon which occurs in only a few places on Earth. The enormous, dark cone of the mountain's shadow is cast over the terrain to the west as the sun slowly ascends, offering an impressive view from the top. Everyone here has climbed no less than 5,000 steps. And together, we are experiencing an amazing sunrise at 2,243 meters above sea level. This is the reward for a hard night of climbing.

    A small Buddhist ceremony is held after dawn, and new arrivals keep pushing into the crowd to give homage to the footprint. The situation can turn chaotic due to the crowd waiting on the high and narrow last steps of the path. After a last moment to let my heart drink in the panoramic view, it is time to go down. The stunning landscape hidden by the darkness of the night is now offered to the eyes. I hold my breath for few seconds, as if to stop time in that magnificent moment. The descent will not be easy either.

    The sun has just risen, and a crowd is still attempting to climb the last part of the Hatton road, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

    As important religious symbol for Buddhists, Sri Pada has its own "incumbent chief" and he is the only person permitted to give a proclamation regarding the holy peak. Ven. Bengamuwe Dhammadinna Thera resides at Palmadulla Raja Maha Viyaraya, commonly known as Sri Pada temple -- a small, peaceful structure near the town of Palmadulla about 15 kilometers east of Ratnapura. He was elected chief of Sri Pada on Jan. 25, 2012 with 165 votes out of 307 voting "bhikkus."

    He did not want to talk to me personally or be photographed, but he released a brief comment trough his assistant: "As Buddhists, Sri Pada is an important symbols for us. Lord Buddha came to Sri Lanka three times, and when he came to Sri Lanka for the third time, he left the footprint on the mountain. Sri Pada is (venerated) by other religions, but Buddhism is prominent, as it came before Christianity and Islam."

    Despite Buddhist "prominence" in Sri Lanka, different religions coexist in peaceful harmony. Dunkan Ubayarathna is a 53-year-old transport driver from Hikkadwa. He invited me for dinner in his lovely house, bought after years spent working in Dubai as a carpenter. On the sideboard inside the living room, a picture of Pope Francis sits close to a small Buddhist altar.

    "I'm Buddhist and my wife is a fervent Catholic. We married 25 year ago in a Catholic church with Christian rites. Catholic churches in Sri Lanka often host people of different religions when they want to marry a Christian," he said. I talked to him about my experience on Sri Pada, and when I asked him if, in times of religious conflict, Sri Lanka and Adam's peak can be an example of peace and reconciliation. He replied, smiling softly: "Humans must find peace and reconciliation inside themselves; they never come from somewhere else." (By Giorgio de Franceschi, special to The Mainichi)

    Adam's Peak as it appears from the Hatton road on Sri Pada's north side, on the morning after the night climb, on March 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

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