The Toyota Hiace van we were travelling in pulled to a stop outside a small roadside restaurant in the hills of the Ratnapura district. Having driven along small dirt roads that weave through the green sloping tea fields Sri Lanka is so well known for, our tired legs thought they had travelled a far greater distance than they actually had. Our starting point, Kitigula, was a mere 50 km’s from here, but driving in the hills makes for a slow journey. Our reason for being here stood in the distance ahead of us. Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada as it’s known by Buddhists, towered high above the other hills, giving the impression of great height. In reality, at 2243m, it is only Sri Lanka’s fifth tallest peak. This would be our best view of the mountain in its entirety, and we were fortunate that the day was not heavily overcast. From here, the further we travelled towards the mountain, our view of it would be obstructed, so this, our guide instructed us, was where we were to take any photos.
We continued driving further for another twenty minutes, to the base of the mountain. It was still pilgrimage season, though not for much longer. Small wooden huts, filled with various types of goods, ranging from sweets to woolly hats, still lined the route leading to the entrance of the trail. As we walked uphill, the smell of incense and sounds of Bollywood (yes, Bollywood) filled the air. My travelling companions and I were visibly Muslim (or rather my sister and I were, due to our hijabs), and we were aware that we had an audience. However the attention we drew was not at all negative. The vast majority of those present, bar a couple of European travellers, were Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus, but the attention we drew was friendly and welcoming. One woman invited me to try the snack she was selling, for free. It looked like a stick (literally), and I found out later that it’s called Odiyal, chewed and eaten for its health benefits. Though it left a slightly bitter after-taste, it wasn’t at all unpleasant.
Another young man, Sanju, welcomed us with ‘salaams’ and gave us free sweets from his sweet shop, as he said, “for friendship.”
At the summit of Adam’s Peak, stands a temple, built around a large indentation in rock. This indentation is believed by the faithful to be a footprint. There are numerous historical texts, from various countries and traditions, that mention Adam’s Peak and the religious beliefs associated with it: Chinese, Tibetan, Portuguese, even English (1). For Buddhists, who boast a vast tradition of pilgrimage and ritual associated with the site, the ‘footprint’ belongs to Buddha. For Hindus it is that of Shiva; for Christians, the Apostle St. Thomas. For Muslims, there is a historical tradition that suggests that it is the footprint of the Prophet Adam (peace be upon him), marking the spot on which he landed after expulsion from paradise. There is no suggestion, however, that this belief is supported by authentic sources in the Islamic tradition. What seems clear, is that Muslims have, in some capacity or other, been visiting the site from at least the thirteenth century onwards. Marco Polo encountered them towards the end of the century (2) (though he wrongly beloved Adam’s grave to be at the top) and Giovanni de’ Marignolli, a monk in the Franciscan priory Santa Croce in Florence, visited in the fourteenth century, where he met a Spanish Muslim (3). Other such examples can be found in travel literature in subsequent centuries also.
The most extensive account by a Muslim author of the site is that of Ibn Battuta, who also climbed the summit and described the route in detail. On his journey to the peak (and also on the way back) he mentions a number of notable places, such as “cave of Baba Tahir, who was one of the pious,” “the cave of Shisham, who is Sheth, the son of Adam,” and “the village of At Kalanja, where the tomb of Abu Abd Allah Ibn Khafif is situated.”
About the route itself, “There are two roads on the mountain leading to the foot (of Adam); the one is known by “the way of Baba,” the other, by “the way of Mama,” by which they mean Adam and Eve. The way called that of Mama is easy: to it the travellers come upon their first visiting the place; but every one who has travelled only upon this, is considered as if he had not made the pilgrimage at all. The way named Baba is rough, and difficult of ascent.”
Today, there are still two routes used; the first, which is the easier of the two, takes around three hours, while the longer takes around seven and is fifteen kilometres in distance. Even the shorter route has 5500 steps, so is by no means an easy climb.Ibn Battuta, who also mentions the steps, continues, “At the foot of the mountain where the entrance is, there is a minaret named after Alexander, and a fountain of water. The ancients have cut something like steps, upon which one may ascend, and have fixed in iron pins, to which chains are appended; and upon these those who ascend take hold. Of these chains there are ten in number, the last of which is termed “the chain of witness,” because, when one has arrived at this, and looks down, the frightful notion seizes him that he shall fall. After the tenth chain is the cave of Khidr, in which there is a large space; and at the entrance a well, of water, full of fish, which is also called after his name.”
Of the ten chains that he describes, only one remains. The location of the cave of Khidr (figure mentioned in the Qur’an) is unknown. When Ibn Battuta reaches the summit, he describes the footprint, “The holy foot (mark) is in a stone, so that its place is depressed. The length of the impression is eleven spans.” (7)
Sadly, on this visit, we were not able to climb the Peak (though I plan on returning one day to do so). As we walked back down the slopes, away from the entrance of the trail and back to our starting point, I remember noticing how relaxed the atmosphere felt. Though it’s far from certain whether or not the traditions associated with the site have any truth in them, it felt good to be in a place that holds some meaning for people of so many different backgrounds- a claim that cannot be made for many other places on earth.
A good resource about climbing the peak and the best times to do so can be found here.
(1) See Aksland, Markus, The Sacred Footprint: A Cultural History of Adam’s Peak, Orchid Press, Thailand, 2001.
(2) Rugoff, M., ed., The Travels of Marco Polo, New York, 1961.
(3) Yule, H., Cathay and the way thither, 4 vols., London, 1914.
(4) Klinke-Rosenburger, R., Das Gotzenbuch Kitab al-asnam des Ibnal-Kalbi, Sammlung Orientalischer Arbeiten, 8. Heft, Leipzig, 1941.
(5) Aksland, Markus, The Sacred Footprint: A Cultural History of Adam’s Peak, Orchid Press, Thailand, 2001, pp. 118.
(6) Ibid pp 119.
(7) Trans. Lee, Samuel, Rev., The Travels of Ibn Batuta; Translated from the Abridged Arabic Manuscript Copies, preserved in the Public Library of Cambridge, London: Printed for the Oriental Translation Committee, 1829, 183-192.
Full text of Ibn Battuta’s description of Sri Pada can be found here.