In the realm of but­ter­flies

Climb with the pil­grims on Sri Lanka’s sa­cred Adam’s Peak

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LAU­REN RAYNER

“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

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