Sri Padaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage to a sacred mountain

The Sri Padaya is a sacred mountain to the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, as they believe the footprint at the mountain peak is of Gautama Buddha. It is located in the southern reaches of the Central Highlands, about 40 km northeast from  Ratnapura and 32 km southwest of from Hatton.

 The surrounding region is largely forested hills, with no mountain of comparable size nearby. The region along the mountain is a wildlife reserve, housing many species from elephants to leopards, and including many endemic species. Sri Padaya is important as a watershed and the area to the south and the east of the Peak yield precious stones—emeralds, rubies and sapphires, for which the island has been famous, and which earned for it the ancient name of Ratnadveepa.

The pilgrim season to the sacred mountain Sri Pada, begins annually on the ‘Unduvap’ (full moon day in December) and ends on the ‘Vesak’ {full moon day in May}. During this open semester, pilgrims ascend the mountain to pay homage to the sacred footprint.

Access to the mountain is possible by 6 trails:

  1. Ratnapura-Palabaddala
  2. Hatton-Nallathanni
  3. Kuruwita-Erathna
  4. Murraywatte
  5. Mookuwatte
  6.  

The Nallathanni and Palabaddala routes are most favored by those undertaking the climb, while the Kuruwita-Erathna trail is used less often. These trails are linked to major cities or town by bus, accounting for their popular use. The Murraywatte, Mookuwatte and Malimboda routes are seldom used, but do intersect with the Palabaddala road midway through the ascent. The usual route taken by most pilgrims is ascent via Hatton and descent via Ratnapura. Although the Hatton trail is the steepest, it is also shorter than any of the other trails by approximately five kilometers.

Once one of the starting ‘nodes’ of Palabadalla, Nallathanni or Erathna are reached, the rest of the ascent is done on foot through the forested mountainside on the steps built into it. The greater part of the track leading from the base to the summit consists of thousands of steps built in cement or rough stones. The trails are illuminated with electric lighting, making night-time ascent possible and safe to do even when accompanied by children. Rest stops and wayside shops along the trails serve refreshments and supplies.

Sri Pada is first mentioned (as `Samanthakuta’) in the Deepawamsa, the earliest Pali chronicle, (4th century), and also in the 5th century chronicle Mahawamsa, where it is stated that the Gautama Buddha visited the mountain peak. The chronicle Rajavaliya states that the King Valagamba (1st century BCE) had taken refuge in the forests of Adam’s Peak against invaders from India, and later returned to Anuradhapura. The Mahawamsa again mentions the visit of King Vijayabahu I (1058–1114) to the mountain. The famous Chinese pilgrim and Buddhist traveler Fa Hien stayed in Sri Lanka in 411–12 CE and mentions Sri Pada although it is not made clear whether he actually visited it.

Another Sinhala name for the mountain is samanala kanda, which refers the butterflies that frequent the mountain during their annual migrations to the region. The name Sri Paada, however, is the more commonly used.

It is an important pilgrimage site, es for Buddhists. The mountain is most often scaled from December to May. During other months it is hard to climb the mountain due to heavy rain, strong winds and thick mist. The peak pilgrimage season is in April, and the goal is to be at top the mountain peak at sunrise, when the distinctive shape of the mountain casts a triangular shadow on the surrounding plain and can be seen to move quickly downward as the sun rises.

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