The most beautiful place I have ever seen is the hill country of Sri Lanka. Rolling, winding hills cover the region like waves in the ocean. They are green and lush with a myriad of flora. Tea plantations cover the sides like quilt patchwork. The occasional waterfall cascades down the sides of hills and falls into an immense lake in the valley below. Little villages of yellow and red houses are nestled in the crevices. It is hard to believe that it is real.
I went to the hill country to do one thing: climb Sri Pada. A mountain stretching almost 7,500 feet in the sky, it is a holy pilgrimage site for all religions. This ascent was the one thing that I felt determined to do when I came to this island nation, no matter how difficult the journey might be.
To get Sri Prada, I took a two-hour bus to Kandy, a major city in the center of the country. From Kandy, I spent seven more hours hopping on and off of buses to make it to the feet of Sri Pada. Taking the bus through the hill country is no small feat, as the roads are as sinuous and terrifying as a real snake. As my bus driver drove nearly 60 miles per hour on narrow roads with no railing, he managed the wheel with one hand, talking on the phone with the other. I was nearly sick several times.
However, once I saw the summit of Sri Pada looming in the distance, the legends that shroud the peak began to make more sense. According to Buddhists, when the Buddha began his travels outside of India, he visited Sri Lanka and climbed to the summit of Sri Pada. According to Hindus, the mountain is owned by the god Shiva. Another name for the mountain is “Adam’s Peak.” It was adorned this name by Arab Muslim traders during the age of the maritime Silk Road. When they came to Sri Lanka and discovered the stunning beauty of Sri Pada and the surrounding hill country, they thought that it could be none other than the Garden of Eden. Thus, it was called “Adam’s Peak,” after the first man of humankind.
Traditionally, climbers scale Sri Pada during the night so that they make it to the top to see the sunrise. It just so happened that the night we were to climb was a night of the full moon, which is called a “Poya Day” in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition. This meant that it was an especially holy night to climb. I was with another volunteer, Mackenzie, and we decided to start climbing Sri Pada at exactly midnight, hoping that we would get ahead of most of the crowd.
For the first two and a half hours, it was smooth sailing. We could look ahead of us and see the path snaking up the side of the mountain and the temple at the top glowing white and lilac. It was a sight akin to how I envision Mount Olympus would have looked to the Greeks in antiquity. There weren’t many other people around and we were able to take our time, which was greatly appreciated.
We had to climb 5,500 steps to get to the summit and half way up we ran into the crowd. It became a complete standstill. Thousands upon thousands of people were trying to reach the top and once you were in the crowd, you were stuck. There were at least a dozen people on each step with very little breathing room. This was at three o’clock in the morning, so we still had a few hours until sunrise.
People of all ages, from newborns to the elderly, were climbing up Sri Pada in one big mass.
It was quite a sight to behold. There were so many pilgrims adorned in their white, accompanied by the occasional monk in tangerine, moving as one. Many carried gifts of flowers and food to give as offerings to Buddha, and some sang songs and chants as they climbed. Witnessing their commitment and vigor for climbing to the peak of Sri Pada was incredible. It was a deeply moving and spiritual experience. I can’t really put the full effect into words.
Although it was a Buddhist holiday, I did see a Hindu or Muslim family every so often. To me, it was refreshing to know that the mountain holds sacrament to all. Sri Lanka has been a place of great religious tension and conflict, which went on for nearly thirty bloody years between the Buddhists and the Hindus. Now that the war has been over for almost a decade, tensions are starting to rise again, except now against Muslims. A few weeks ago, a fake news segment spread word that a Muslim-owned store was selling products to its Sinhalese customers that would render them sterile and infertile. Riots and violent protests erupted in heavily populated Muslim towns in the east. In major cities like Kandy there were bombings and deaths from both sides. For a short time, the government even went as far as restricting our access to WhatsApp and Facebook to try to stop the terrorism coming from extremists of all three religions. Thankfully, things began to settle down and soon it was in the past. After experiencing this upheaval, it was nice to see people of all the faiths walking together to a place they all hold so holy.
Moving towards the top of Adam’s Peak, I experienced something I never thought I would experience in Sri Lanka: the cold! The average temperature here is in the high 80s, so to feel the bitter cold was very unexpected. I’m just glad I had a jacket with me. We inched slowly and painstakingly to the summit of Sri Pada just as the first bit of light began to show on the horizon. We all watched in awe as the sky was illuminated in a rainbow of colors and lights. The sky was pink and lavender and the sun was a searing red. Everyone waited in silent anticipation to see the sun peak over the horizon, and once it did, the mountain erupted in applause. Slowly but surely, as I climbed to the top of the summit, the sun climbed higher in the sky.
I truly have never seen anything more stunning. The sunrise was indescribable and something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I felt like I was on top of the world looking down at the whole globe around me. In total, it took almost 10 hours to make it up and down the mountain. I have never been more exhausted, but every minute, every second, every pain and sore in my body was worth what I saw at the top of Sri Pada.