In the realm of butterflies
Climb with the pilgrims on Sri Lanka’s sacred Adam’s Peak
“EVERY second, new colours,” says my guide, Dharme, as the sky turns from crimson to gold. As the sun rises, the landscape below takes shape — distant peaks soar above valleys that dip beneath a canopy of mist. Waterfalls plunge, white stupas peek out from the jungle, and coloured flags are illuminated in the early light.
It is 6am and we are standing on the summit of Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain, the conical Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada, as it’s known locally), which has been venerated since antiquity for a footprint-shaped indentation that Buddhists believe was left by Buddha and which Muslims attribute to Adam, Hindus to Shiva, and some Christians to St Thomas.
According to Sinhala tradition, Buddha left his mark on Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”) on his third and final visit to Sri Lanka. Some say it is actually impressed upon a sapphire beneath the rock. A temple has been built to house the imprint, to which Sri Lankan devotees aspire to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. We have set off at 2.45am from Nallatanniya, deep in hill country, to reach the top in time to see the “shadow of the peak”, when the sun projects the shape of the mountain on to the mist below.
It isn’t just pilgrims we are likely to encounter. The mountain is home to all sorts of wildlife, such as the slender loris and the purple-faced langur. Each year, scores of butterflies flock there to die in a mysterious migration pattern that has given the mountain the nickname Samanalakande, or Butterfly Mountain.
“And there are leopards,” Dharme says. “Leopards?” He nods casually. “Leopards, wild boar, pythons ...” Sightings are rare, but Dharme encountered a leopard just a few months earlier. I scan the foliage for eyes.
Ahead of us, a trail of sparkling lights ascends until they become indistinguishable from the stars. Our footsteps are accompanied by a forest a cappella as frogs croak, monks chant and, occasionally, the bushes rustle. Every so often, a cloud shifts and I glimpse the peak, veiled in moonlit mist. Our path is dotted with glowing teahouses serving steaming tea and roti with “dynamite” — wild chilli and onion paste. “Climbing fuel,” Dharme tells me. Half a teaspoon and my lips are scorching; Dharme goes back for more.
At a small plateau, we reach a post knotted with thousands of white threads. “Indikatupana,” Dharme explains — the needle place. Here, pilgrims thread a needle to mark the spot where Buddha paused to mend his robe. Past Indikatupana, the trail grows steeper. An elderly pilgrim rests while her family waits ahead. It is considered taboo to return to the base without reaching the summit, so pilgrims often use songs to encourage others along. On poya (full-moon) nights, when the trail is busiest, singing can be heard across the mountain.
A local saying goes: “If you have never climbed Sri Pada, you are a fool; if you’ve climbed it twice, you’re a bloody fool.” Dharme announces this is his 1510th time, which, I joke, positions him as bordering on certifiable. As
Buddhists pray at Adam’s Peak summit temple, above; a pilgrim rings a bell at the peak, left; scores of butterflies flock in an annual migration, right