Welcome to Sri Pada (Adam’s peak)
The most famous physical feature of Sri Lanka is Sri Pada (Adam’s peak). This is situated in the Ratnapura district. It is on the edge of the central massif but its surrounding group of mountains called the Wilderness of the Peak, is so extensive in comparison to the bulk of the other mountain groups that it appears to for a nucleus of its own, separate from the others. It is about 75000 feet high and though it is the second highest Peak in the land, its position in relation to the topography is so dominant that it stands out above all others. From December to April, pilgrims converge to climb the 2,224km Adam’s Peak. At the top is a huge footprint, claimed by Muslims to belong to Adam.
Never mind that Buddhist believe it to be the mark of the Buddha or that Hindus hold the print to have been made by Lord Shiva the fact remains that it is has been a place of pilgrimage for over one thousand years.
Sri Pada or Adam’s peak as it was known to the early West was in the limelight from times before the recorded history of the Island. Legends surrounding the sacred mount existed prior to the Christian era. It is axiomatic that worship of deities in high places was indulged in by mankind from times of remote antiquity. Indeed, high inaccessible places were held in awe and veneration from the time of man’s primordial religion – worship of nature.
The cult persisted in the pagan world up to the early Greek and Roman times and even later, thus Mt. Olympus in Greece was dedicated to the Greek pantheon. Even to this day, Chomolungma (Tibetan for goddess Mother of the World), a peak in the Himalayan range and several other peaks en route to Everest and Mt. Everest itself are held sacred by the Tibetans and Nepalese. It is recorded that Norkay Tensing and his Sherpa clansmen who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his successful expedition to Mt. Everest in 1953, offered a sacrifice of food to the Mountain Goddess of Chomolungma invoking her blessings for the success of the expedition. Hillary himself buried a small crucifix given him by the leader, Colonel John Hunt. Tradition is hard to die!
By the time Macedon’s illustrious son, Alexander the Great, Greek warrior king and empire builder is believed to have visited Sri pada (circa. 324 B.C.), the peak was already held in veneration. After his subjugation of the Persian Empire and the dependencies thereof Alexander led his forces on to India beyond the Indus to the ancient city of Taxila. He was at last countered by Porus the Indian king and his battle-trained cohorts of fighting elephants.
These huge beasts were unfamiliar to the Greek cavalry to which they presented a forbidding and formidable obstacle. The terrified horses stampeded and began to scatter out of control in utter panic. On the representation of his generals and fearing mutiny by the army Alexander decided to come to terms with Porus. After his skirmish with Porus the restless and venturesome Alexander decided to detour the south west coast of India and explore further south where he had heard of the fabulous isle of Sri Lanka known to the early Greeks as ‘Taprobane’.
Here reports of the Sacred Mount of Sri Pada, then dedicated to the Hindu deity Saman and known as Samanthakuti, attracted his attention. The peak with its proud pinnacle commanding an enchanting prospect was too much of an attraction for the pleasure-bent Alexander to resist.
Ashraff the 15th century poet describes this odyssey of Alexander to Sri Pada in his ‘Zaffer Namah Skendari’. After landing in the Island and indulging himself and his retinue in orgies and revelry he explores the wonders of the Island.
Here Alexander is known to have sought the assistance of the Philosopher Bolinas, a celebrated Greek occultist and magician, to climb the Sacred peak, then supposed to be zealously guarded by various deities. Among the artefacts devised to ascend the then almost inaccessible peak were massive iron chains affixed to stanchions of the same metal secured to the bare rock face. The chains were secured to the stanchions with rivets of iron and bronze. Remains of these artefacts still evident. Early pilgrims to the peak made use of these chains to hoist themselves up to the summit.
The belief that Alexander visited Sri pada existed before Ashraff. Ibn Batuta, the romantic 14th century Arab pilgrim traveller from Tangiers in Morocco who sojourned in the Island visiting the Sacred Mount, refers to a grotto at the foot of the peak with the word “Iskander’ inscribed on it. This ‘Iskander’ and ‘Skendari’ of Ashraff are identical, both names refer to none other than the celebrated Alexander the Great himself. Notes Batuta in his memoirs: “The ancients have cut steps of a sort on the vertical rock face, to these steps are fixed iron stanchions with suspended chains to enable pilgrims clamber up to the top with ease and minimum risk. The impression of the Almighty’s foot is observed upon a black and lofty rock in an open space on the summit. Apart from scanty and much belated Arab sources, history is strangely silent for over seventeen centuries on the visit of Alexander to the Island and his journey to Sri Pada.
Neither the Great Dynastic Chronicle Mahawamsa nor any other historical record of significance refers to it. Alexander’s exploits were centred mainly in and around Persia and the Persian empire, the legends and folklore of the early Persians were, as a matter of course, handed over to their Arab posterity. Commenting on the ancient artefacts on Sri Pada, the Englishman Robert Percival, who served with the British garrison in Colombo in the early nineteenth century, notes: “The iron chains on the rock face of Adam’s Peak have the appearance of being planted there at a very early date, who placed them there or for what purpose they were set up there is difficult for anyone to know.
The beliefs and superstitions of the natives present difficulties. Whatever it is, all evidence indicates that the Peak was in the limelight long before the recorded history of the Island.