As I balance myself on the low wall running around the enclosed shrine area on Adam’s Peak, I am flush with sensations. My legs crumble in gratitude under me. My toes throb dully from inside my trekking shoes. My knees quiver in relief, clearly delighted to be given a chance to gather their wits. I listen to my heartbeat slow down to normal and promise myself, like every time, that I would now get more sincere about my workout resolutions.
To be fair, the climb up to Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, is certified strenuous. At 2,243 meters, it is Sri Lanka’s fourth highest mountain and a 6-odd km trek to the top. For locals, Sri Pada holds great religious significance. For travellers looking for adventure, Adam’s Peak holds out the charm of a challenging trek and the promise of a beautiful sunrise.
The promise has its demands, though. Starting out at 2:30 AM, not only must you climb some 5,200 steps within 3 hours to get to the summit by sunrise – often exhausting your day’s quota of enthusiasm by the end of the ascent – inevitability demands that sooner or later you must round up your highly reluctant legs and climb down the same 5,200 steps. The steps themselves are of varying heights, from the blessed nearly-flat ones to devilish knee-busters towards the end. Like many others, I suspect, my favourite motivation technique in such situations is to identify some persons as my “If they can do this, I certainly can!” mascots, so that their steady progress towards the goal is impetus enough for me to step up my game. Accordingly, in the initial stages of this climb, I had picked out my unsuspecting motivators – a chubby kid reluctantly being hauled along by his parents, a lady out of breath before the second flight of steps was over – and every time they went past me, it inspired a burst of speed in my tired limbs. That I was not the only one squeezing dry this motivation mantra was clear by the number of times I saw a certain someone jump up from her resting stop and scurry upwards every time she saw me approaching.
During our skyward journey on this route, fellow climbers and I took short breaks to catch our breath and long ones to rest our legs, passed around energy drinks and glucose biscuits, huddled together at tea stalls to beat the chilly wind, and gave spontaneous pep talks to comrades who looked dangerously close to giving up. Getting some encouraging gummy smiles from aged local pilgrims working their way steadily up the mountain also worked wonders for our energy levels.
And so it is that all of us, some proudly striding to the top and others crawling across the last few steps, have finally made our way to the small enclosure at the top of Sri Pada. We wait expectantly on the viewing steps, sit cross legged on the stony ground, lean against the wall, stand with our loved ones snuggled close, shiver in the morning cold; some with a prayer on their lips, others with their cameras ready; in hushed silence and near darkness, breathing calm and breathing deep, and looking forward to the dawn unfolding slowly, gloriously, in front of our eyes.
As Buddhist chants and ceremonial drums begin to rend the air, I tear myself away and head towards the small temple atop the Peak. It is the day after December poya, and I see a small huddle of pilgrims standing with their heads bowed in veneration. The temple houses a large boulder marked with the sacred footprint that gives the mountain its Sinhalese name (Siripada or Sri Pada) as well as multi-religious significance. While Sri Lankans worship the mark as Buddha’s imprint upon the peak to acknowledge the island’s importance, other beliefs hold that the footprint marks Adam’s first step on earth after being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, or that it was created by Lord Shiva, or by St. Thomas the Apostle who came to India to spread the Christian word. Occasionally, a bell rings out somewhere, its toll signifying the number of times the ringer has visited the temple.
I pay my respects to the holy footprint and make my way outside. I find a place for myself on the low wall surrounding the temple enclosure. Just past 5:45 AM, dawn finally breaks through the night sky, sending ripples of searing red through clouds that engulf everything in sight. For a few long moments, the transitioning sky is on fire: a blazing canopy of colours transfixing those of us below. Ambitious orange flames leap outward but soon they are rendered weaker, paler, less surreal. Within moments, the sky is washed over by familiar softer hues that assure more than they astound. Distant mountain peaks and faraway lakes come into view, bathed in the placid morning light.
Suddenly, there is a hushed gasp as a mountain is born in the thick mist, in front of our eyes. Sri Pada casts its own shadow, a gigantic and perfectly conical mirage, on the mist rising from the river below. The sight is entrancing as it is eerie, and dissolves slowly as the sun rises higher.
These few minutes of a new day birthed in utter silence make for an oddly spiritual experience. For a brief while, I no longer take notice of the people milling around me, my camera poised but forgotten, till the soft clicks of numerous frenzied cameras call me back. I, too, turn to my third eye and peer into my viewfinder to try capture the morning, thankful for the moment of nirvana that had quietly strayed into my consciousness, unexpected and unearned.