After four days in Kandy, I boarded the train and headed deeper into the Hill Country. My energy was low and I would have slept the entire ride if not for the spectacular scenery. In a country that has already impressed me with its beautiful beaches and ancient cities, one wouldn’t expect it to get much better. But when Marco Polo wrote that Sri Lanka was the finest island its size in the world, he knew what he was talking about. In terms of natural beauty, the Hill Country is one treat after another.

The train rambled out of Sri Lanka’s second largest city (though arguably there are only two real ‘cities’ in the whole country) past outlying homes, snack shops and schools where children waved excitedly through open windows. As we stopped in small stations on the far Kandy outskirts where life took on a more leisurely pace, the train began to clear and before long I was directed to give up my window seat on an empty car and change trains. To my dismay, the ongoing train was nearly full and no window seats available so I slumped down in an empty chair and quickly fell asleep. I was awakened an hour later as my neighbor departed at his stop, freeing up the coveted window seat beside me. Now I had no excuse for sleeping as I watched the train begin its gentle climb deeper into the Hill Country.

The beauty of Kandy preceded us every bit of the way so that there was no striking difference those first couple of hours. The lush green color that was interspersed between buildings and temples in Kandy continued with us through small villages and vast open countryside. Only the buildings became fewer and smaller while on both sides of the train mountains grew and farmlands became more prevalent than pavement. Gentle, smiling faces looked on as the train passed mothers cradling curious-faced children and farmers briefly stopping their work to wave friendly hellos. Popcorn peddlers and peanut pushers walked by repeatedly and became familiar faces as this east-bound train was shorter, with fewer cars in which to unload their goods. I watched the world pass by with lazy eyes, occasionally snoozing then waking to find us passing postcard-perfect views. Jade green tea plantations began to appear along sloping hillsides and the occasional waterfall trickled its way down rocky creek beds. Tamil and Sinhalese villages appeared amongst the vast terraces of tea plantations, and our train followed a level grade in the midst of the green glow of row after row of tea plants.

I chatted with the tour guide of a group of well-to-do British tourists as he told me his story of first climbing Adams Peak alone at 15, fainting on the summit and being comforted by monks who poured holy water on his weary head. Past his face an open door began to afford glimpses of photo-worthy mountainsides and I had to excuse myself to stand in the doorway and marvel at the passing views. The train slowly meandered its way along the upper slopes of a broad valley with higher mountains occasionally poking up on the distant horizon. A river snaked it way across the valley floor, colorful clothes drying upon its rocky banks. And on both sides of the valley, from the utmost ridges on both sides to the cool rushing river below, were endless rows of jade green tea plantations, sculpted in winding rows for as far as the eye could see. Squads of Tamil tea pickers (all women) moved through rows of bushes picking leaves and buds with baskets or bags upon their backs supported by a strip of cloth fastened to the container and held in place upon their foreheads. After being collected, the tea would be transported to the factories, large multi-storey buildings that dot the landscape and provide the tea that we enjoy at home. I stood in the open doorway, my head hanging out the train like a local and watched as an endless stream of picturesque plantations passed by.

The train dropped me at Hatton where I got a seat on the local bus and began the trip towards Dalhousie and Adams Peak. This lofty peak has sparked people’s imagination for centuries. It is variously known as Adams Peak (the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven), Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint, left by Buddha as he headed towards paradise) or Samanalkande (Butterfly Mountain, where butterflies go to die). Some believe the huge ‘footprint’ on top of the 2243m peak to be that of St Thomas, the early apostle of India, or even of Lord Shiva. Whichever legend you choose to believe, this place has been a pilgrimage center for over 1000 years. These days the pilgrimage season begins on poya day in December and runs until Vesak Festival in May. During that time, a steady stream of pilgrims (and the odd tourist, like myself) make the climb up the countless steps to the top of this mighty peak. It’s not only the footprint pilgrims seek; as the first rays of dawn light up the holy mountain, they are treated to a wonderful view, the hill country rising to the east, while to the west the land slopes away to the sea. Also, the sun casts a perfect shadow of the peak onto the misty clouds down towards the coast. Then as the sun rises higher, this eerie triangular shadow races back towards the peak, eventually disappearing into its base.

The small village of Dalhousie was quite calm upon my midday arrival, though only days before over the full moon (poya) weekend, record numbers of pilgrims made the climb, some say in the thousands or millions, depending who you ask. But today the village was quiet and easy-going, many of the stalls along the road that sells toys, hats and traditional food left unopened. I walked the few streets that meander among the hills and observed a line of tea pickers unloading their day’s pickings and others praying before an enshrined golden Buddha. I ventured from the main road lined with stalls and trinket sellers, keen to get a glimpse of local village life.

A kind man who spoke no English indulged my curiosity, unlocking a small Hindu temple and beckoning me inside. He showed me the statues of Hindu deities and encouraged me to take photographs while he lit incense, poured oils and performed ritualistic prayers and offerings, smearing my forehead with streaks of white powder and the familiar red dot. We were joined by three worshipers, a boy and two girls all around my age, one who spoke good English. She explained that when the large black statue in the main shrine was brought here 100 years ago, it was very small, but over time had grown to the size I saw before me. Then she pointed out a sacred rock at the base of a tree that shaded the temple. It, too, had grown in size she said, possibly due to another statue which the tree had grown around and was now impossible to see. Though I feel a certain skepticism in these situations (much like Buddha’s Sacred Tooth in Kandy), I have learned to accept that the importance of such religious beliefs lies not in the truth of the matter, but in the faith which followers hold dear.

After visiting the Hindu temple, I returned to my guesthouse for dinner. It was a delightful place with two verandas surrounded by gardens which overlook the village of Dalhousie and the green-carpeted hills around town. The Tamil family that runs the guesthouse insisted on feeding me meals of gigantic proportions. I was the only person staying there so I was delighted when she led me to the family’s dining room where a feast for the whole family was laid out. I sat in front of the heaping place of fried rice and waited for them to join me. Then I noticed there was just one plate at the table! Apparently, they intended on me eating a meal that could easily feed four people. I tried my best, but even after devouring twice what my belly could hold, mounds of food lie in front of me. I thanked her for a delicious meal and she assured me the food would not go to waste, so I resigned myself to bed as I would need every bit of rest possible.

Five hours later, at 2:30am, my alarm alerted me that it was time to start hiking. I had some tea and cookies that she laid out for me, shouldered my pack and began the ascent up Adams Peak. The 7km climb is up steps most of the way (about 5200 of them) and a 2:30am start would put at the summit well before dawn. The path through town was quiet with most of the stalls closed, and the first half hour was a gradual slope that passed under the entrance arch, then by the Japanese-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba. Street lights illuminate the path during pilgrimage season and I could see the fluorescent bulbs snaking their way over the hills and then climbing all the way to the summit.

Adams Peak is no mere hill either. Among a mountainous countryside, it stands alone, impossible to go unnoticed, like a razor sharp tooth protruding from a line of molars. Even from a distance, it is an imposing sight with thick green foliage clinging to sides so steep that even I questioned my ability to reach its summit. Aerial photos show a mountain that stands alone, no surrounding peak even comparable in size, with a staircase so steep that I couldn’t even fathom so many people (from children to grandparents) reaching the white temple that sits like an impenetrable fortress on top. Nevertheless, as I reached the first of hundreds of flights of stairs and begin to climb, I was passed by mothers carrying their babies and barefoot pilgrims of 70 years and more as they descended from the summit in the dark. Tea houses, shops and ambalamas (resting places to shelter weary pilgrims) lined the steps nearly to the summit and left me questioning how such items could possibly be carried up such a steep path.

Step after step I trudged up the mountain, my legs moving at a slow but steady pace and my heart pounding in my chest. To attempt the climb in the heat of the day would be tortuous, for even in the cool hill country climate, my shirt was quickly soaked in sweat. I can’t even begin to fathom how a staircase of concrete steps was constructed on such a long, steep incline; even today such a feat would be a massive undertaking. The last couple of kilometers were so steep that I clutched the railway for safety, at 26-years old feeling wobbly on my feet while 80-year old women hobbled barefoot on their way down with half of a grueling pilgrimage completed. So many times I expected to round a corner and be on top, but the trail just kept going.

When alas I reached the summit temple, I marveled at the scene around me. A hundred or more pilgrims ranging from swaddling babies to wrinkled elders huddled in doorways and against the temple walls, wrapped in blankets, extra clothes and each others arms, shivering against the frigid wind that whipped across the exposed summit. The temperature at such elevation was brutally cold for a country like Sri Lanka and whereas I had made the climb in a speedy hour and forty minutes, nearly all of these pilgrims had started their climb at sunset and endured the harsh cold of the night. To make matters worse, being a temple, all were required to remove their shoes, and as I walked around the concrete landing I could feel the heat being sucked from my body. Fortunately, I had brought a sleeping bag so when I found a space among the huddled, shivering pilgrims, I climbed inside and attempted to sleep through the last hours of the night.

Around 5:30 am I stuck my head out of my bag and found that I was all alone against the wall, a piercing wind haven driven everyone to more sheltered spots. Many gathered against a nearby railing where in the distance they watched as the first hint of light danced on the eastern horizon. I found an unobstructed view, put a fresh memory card in my camera, and sat back and watched the fireworks. For the next hour colors began to skim the far-away mountaintops, the sky changing from star-studded darkness to a gentle blue background. The colors of fire began to streak the eastern sky, pinks mingling with purples as yellow clashed with red. The vast landscape that had been invisible on the ascent was now showing under a faint light. I marveled at the stone-faced mountainsides and deep green plateaus, all of which seemed so small from such a height. Over the loudspeaker came the familiar drumbeats and chants of Buddhist monks, urging the sun up with their prayers. My camera was clicking almost continuously now as the sky changed with every minute and before long the entire eastern horizon was awash in swirling colors. When the sun finally did appear over the mountains, it was almost impossible to tell behind the pastel painting. Suddenly, the sky was bright, the pinks and purples had faded, and a great big ball of yellow fire consumed it all.

I walked around the temple and observed the countless pilgrims who kneeled before the temple with backs arched towards the ground and hands clasped in prayer as the priests made the morning offering. Their chants rang in my ears as I circled the temple, eyes peeled for the shadow of Adams Peak. When alas it did appear, the sight was so marvelous that I wanted to pull the worshippers from the ground and drag them to see. The sun beamed down on the peak casting a shadow so perfect on the misty mountainsides, it was difficult to believe that the steep-sided pyramid was in fact a shadow, and not just a smaller version of Adams Peak.

Once the shadow had faded and the sun burnt away any hint of cold, I rapidly descended Adams Peak, eager to beat the crowds. The views on the way down were stunning, a misty mountain fog wrapped around the mountains as if the ocean had rising and engulfed the hill country. Golden rays of light bounced off the soft cloud pillows and sparkled in the sky. The brilliance of morning carried me down the steep staircase as if I were floating. A 14-year old boy from Colombo completed his pilgrimage with me, racing down the countless stairs together. Near the end of our journey we were met by two Buddhist monks who blessed our journey and tied ceremonial bracelets to our wrists. I bid my young friend farewell and returned to my guesthouse where tea and plates of food awaited me. My legs ached and my shirt dripped with sweat but all I felt was the sense of satisfaction, having completed my own pilgrimage to Adams Peak.


2 comments so far

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  1. wonderful article.Did you know that there are many other trails leading up to sri pada.Hatton is the easiest path but there are some trails on which you have to tackle dense forest and wilderness.google udamaliboda trail to sri pada and sri pada via horton plains (uva province). Amazing scenery.

  2. Hey Mike
    Thanks for your comment. I knew that pilgrims started from a more distant trailhead, but I didn’t know there were alternative trails up to Adams Peak. I greatly appreciate you providing that information and I hope I get the chance to take that trail sometime. Thanks for stopping by.