Note from the author: Sri Pada is one of the few places in the world where the faithful of different religions worship in peace, where no one avows that their god is greater than another’s is. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where people of all religions, including those who do not believe in religion, could gather in such harmony?
Ceylon, February 1972 The next day we left Nurawa Eliya and the leftovers of British colonial rule. We left the West that was.
We took a bus to Nanu-oya. Then a train to Hatton. Then a twenty-three-mile blood-curdling bus ride past beautiful, deep-cleavaged mountains to Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak. On top was a footprint embedded in the stone. Though Buddhists believed it to be the footprint of Buddha, Hindus believed it to be that of Shiva. Muslims revered this site as the place where Adam landed after being tossed out of Eden, while Christians prayed to an indentation in stone they believed was made by the foot of Thomas the Apostle.
I didn’t believe or disbelieve these claims. What I couldn’t believe was the constant stream of pilgrims coming down and going up the peak. They lent this mountain so much spiritual energy, the peak really was all that it is believed to be.
They all flocked to worship. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. And except for us, they all came without the slightest doubt that the footprint belonged to the source of their particular belief. All worshipped at this shrine on top of a 7,300-foot peak, yet nobody showed any sign that one God was superior to another’s. Sri Pada gave refuge to people of all beliefs. How nice for a change.
Joyful chanting and Spartan cheers gave strength of will to everyone who climbed the six miles to the base of the mountain and the extremely vertical 9,000 steps to the summit.
The steps were chiseled into the stone more than a thousand years ago. At one time, the treads must’ve been flat, but over the centuries, innumerable pairs of feet wore them down into nearly forty-five degree sloping angles. It’s a good thing there were ropes and chains on either side to hold on to. Without them to help pull us up, climbing them would’ve been almost impossible.
It was the middle of the night and should have been pitch black, but lanterns lighted the stairs. Every so often, we’d reach a small landing, a natural flat area of rock. Here the obsessively faithful had built little huts, where entire families permanently lived. They served food and tea and a provided a place for us to catch our breaths. We didn’t rest long because we had to get to the top before dawn, where we would see not one, but two sunrises, the only place in the world where this miracle occurred.
So we scrambled with the most intent of the hundreds upon hundreds of people eager to reach the summit; trying to gain altitude while excusing ourselves from jostling those making their way down and they excusing themselves for jostling us on our way up. Our feet and legs were exhausted; our arms ached from constantly pulling on the ropes and chains. It was not a race against each other, but a race against the spinning of the earth.
We made it with time to spare. Time to watch each other’s sweat pouring down our faces by the light of torches surrounding the small and beautiful temple that housed the footprint. Debra, Peter, and I cuddled each other against the cold of pre-dawn and thought of revelations, and then thought some more of how not to think about them.
The “footprint” was a large indentation in the rock, larger than a human footprint. Actually, it didn’t look like a foot at all. Where were the toes? They may have been worn away over the centuries by the millions of hands of millions of pilgrims rubbing, groping, and fondling them until the toes blended in with the foot, which became just a shallow, irregular hole that was smooth as marble.
We, too, couldn’t resist touching it, sensually of course, as you might a Calder sculpture in a fine museum. We added six hands more of imperceptible, but definite, erosion.
The sun rose above the horizon. Everyone was quiet out of reverence. It climbed higher in the sky and began to warm us. As predicted, a second sun followed! This second orb was less orange, and without heat. It was amazing. But only as a phenomenon of the atmosphere, I concluded. I kept that conclusion to myself though, because the vibrations of these pilgrims of so many different faiths, staring in awe at the two sunrises, were so peaceful, harmonious, and synchronous, who was I to burst anyone’s bubble?
After the phantom sun had blended in with the real one, we began the descent along with hundreds of others. Most everyone took the stairs toe to heel, the same way we had climbed them. Not intentionally, but naturally. And at that pace, we noticed everything we were supposed to notice.
When we reached one of the lower landings, we could look over the village at the base of the mountain. It was a village with no name. It existed only to serve the needs of the pilgrims. A steady stream of them kept arriving. By bus, foot, oxen, and makeshift stretchers and carts for the handicapped and disabled. They too would crawl their way to the top on their hands and knees if they had to, drag their lifeless legs behind them if they had to, take a week to do it if they had to. But they would reach the top, arriving with bloodied knees and battered fingers. They didn’t care. It wasn’t a bother. And they would touch the place where Buddha, Shiva, Adam or the doubting Thomas had briefly stepped while walking the sky.