Climbing Sri Pada-By Uditha Devapriya

Climbing Sri Pada-By Uditha Devapriya


Photos by Dhananjaya Samarakoon

When they weren’t climbing Sri Pada or conversing with kings, the earliest foreign travellers to Sri Lanka were dwelling on gems, rubies, topazes, sapphires, and moonstones. From Pliny and Cosmas to Fa Hsien, Odoric of Pordenone, de Marignolli, Friar Hethoun, Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, and de Castanheda, it was all rubies and gems: Fa Hsien saw a Buddha image “in green jade more than 20 cubits high”, “a great ruby” that shone “like a bright star at night” which Marco Polo described as “a span long and as thick as a man’s arms.”

Polo, a merchant who had served at the court of Kublai Khan, wrote of ambassadors being sent by that emperor to the king of “Zeitan” who asked him to yield this ruby in return for “the value of a city.” The king refused, informing them that it was “a jewel handed to him by his predecessors.” The emissaries hence had to return empty-handed. Historians, including K. M. de Silva, have conjectured that this could have been the Tooth Relic.

Sri Pada was the peak of gem country, and many of those travellers who made their way up there, believing it to be the site of paradise, surveyed the land below it. “The bottom is full of precious stones,” Odoric wrote, while Ibn Batuta noted that “gems are met with in all the localities.” Both Odoric and Batuta believed that Adam found redemption at its foot, and this most probably led them to make fantastic pronouncements on it: for Odoric, “an exceedingly great mountain”, and for Batuta, “the mountain of Serendib than which the whole world does not contain a mountain of greater height.” Roland Raven-Heart was blunt: “it is not even the highest in Ceylon.” Still, claims continued to be made: in 1782 Pierre Sonnerat thought it to be “the highest in Asia.” Being a naturalist, he should have known better.

The land around the peak was known as Sabaragamuwa or Habaragamuwa, possibly because of its association with the veddahs: the Mahavamsa tells us that after Kuveni had been forced to flee both Vijaya’s settlements and her own clan with her two children, they came to settle at Sumanakuta. Sabara or “Habara” literally means “the barbarian”, and the area was called “the land of the barbarians.” But Vijaya’s settlements expanded, civilisation made its way to mountainous retreats, and the veddahs moved away to Bintenna and Vellassa, with some of them finding a home further up north in the Vanniya: falling under the Jaffna kingdom, yet pledging their allegiance to the king of Kandy at the time of the British conquest.

Eventually, Sabaragamuwa found itself lodged between two regions: to the south of the Peak, Ruhunurata, and to the north, everything else: “on the northwest the kingdom of Ceylon, and on all other sides the ocean.” One of the earliest references to Sri Pada calls it “Al-Rouhoun“,; an Arab merchant named Soleyman reportedly used the term in 851 CE.

Although the Chronicles are agreed on the point that it was Vattagamini Abhaya who found the Footprint of the Buddha and so initiated a cult of worship around it, the earliest historical evidence for that cult comes to us from inscriptions during the reign of Vijayabahu I; it is said that this king dedicated a village called Gilimaya for the benefit of the pilgrims. Later rulers who the Chronicles refer to as travellers, devotees, or patrons of the Peak included Nissanka Malla; Parakramabahu II; Vijayabahu IV; Vikramabahu, the de facto founder of the udarata kingdom; Rajasinghe I; Vimaladharmasuriya II; Narendrasinghe; Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe; and Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. While Marco Polo, Father Marignolli, Ribeiro, and Queyroz did dwell on the Peak, the first European to complete the ascent was a German soldier who had served the Dutch East India Company: Daniel Pathey, in 1684.

Since we have no written evidence prior to the reign of Vattagamini Abhaya or Vijayabahu I, we have to rely on folklore and oral history. Perhaps the most intriguing story surrounding the Peak is its purported link with Ravana, a myth largely based on the Mahavamsa’s allusion to the Buddha’s first and third visits to the island, both of which, we are told, took him to the summit. Followers of Mahayanism, particularly in India and China, believed in the seventh and eight centuries AD that the Buddha delivered a discourse, the Lankavatara Sutra, to the chief of the raksas, Ravana, there. Senarath Paranavitana wrote that Lankavatara was another name for Sri Pada: “the summit of the mountain in the ocean at Lankapura.”

By contrast, the Theravada tradition does not touch on the Peak this way, and the Dipavamsa, the predecessor to the Mahavamsa which dwells on the Buddha’s visits to the island, does not mention the Peak at all. That, however, did not stem the tide of speculation; over the decades historical research concluded to varying degrees that the mountain played a pivotal role in the Ramayana. Two Sanskrit plays, Murāri’s Anargha-raghava and Rājaśekara’s Balaramayana, featured the Peak: the former after Ravana returns to his country with Sita aboard his vehicle, the latter after Rama has slain Ravana.

If Ravana the chief of the raksas, and Vibishana after him, did rule from Sri Pada – points on which there is no historical consensus, barring the findings of the late Mirando Obeyesekere which were all, ultimately, based on the slim, slender evidence of certain ola inscriptions that have as of yet found no favour with historians and archaeologists – it certainly makes sense, as Paranavitana believed at the time, that the Peak was the abode of Yama-raja and that the Sumana-saman of Sinhala Buddhist mythology was in fact Yama prior to the establishment of the primacy of Theravada Buddhism. According to Paranavitana, Saman was a “colleague” of Varuna, a Hindu god whose cult was established in India at the time of the first settlement of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The name Samantukuta, or “Saman’s abode”, did not gain traction until the seventh century, by which time Sinhala Buddhist mythology had absorbed Saman as a Sinhala Buddhist god; the Nikaya Sangrahaya, written in the 14th century AD, has him as one of the four guardians of the land, alongside Vishnu, Vibishana, and Skanda.

When Paranavitana suggests that Saman is Yama, and that a term of disparagement Niganta-Giri uses on the fleeing Vattagamini Abhaya, Maha-kala sinhaya, is a reference to the king’s pretensions as an incarnation of Yama-raja – Maha-kala being a synonym of Yama-raja – he is engaging in a rereading of Pali inscriptions contested by modern historians. Paranavitana’s knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit did not win him credibility with such findings, and far from accepting them, his colleagues tried to disprove them, just as they did with his controversial interpretation of Maudgalyana and Vattagamini Abhaya.

Interestingly enough, his interpretations of the latter kings find their way to his assertions about Sri Pada. In the Culavamsa Maudgalyana, at the thought that dignitaries “have attached themselves to my father’s murderer”, gnashes his teeth and orders that they be put to death. In the Mahavamsa, Vattagamini Abhaya, enraged that a dignitary neglects to prostrate himself before him, kills him and alienates his ministers, who are then advised by a monk to repose their trust in the usurped king. These narratives are only barely referred to in the Chronicles; for Paranavitana, they point at a desire to attain divine status, the status of Yama-raja, who he equates with Saman, among the kings of the time: a tendency only scantily if not elliptically referred to by pro-Theravada and pro-Mahavihara chroniclers.

In arguing that Saman was an incarnation of Yama, Paranavitana denuded him of negative connotations: “this deity, the King of Righteousness (Dharma-raja), is ‘good to the good’ (Sivas sivanam).” Yet even more fantastic than Saman as Yama and Sri Pada as Ravana’s abode – it’s a little surprising that while he explored the former, Paranavitana was not as ready to explore the historicity of the Peak as a key part of the Ramayana, a discrepancy Mirando Obeysekere attributed to the archaeologist’s reluctance to accept the Ravana myth – is the contention that Alexander the Great, who most narratives unequivocally state did not go beyond the lower Indus Valley in his Indian campaigns, climbed the summit.

Two pieces of evidence are marshalled in support of this theory: a grotto at the foot of the mountain with the name “Iskander” inscribed on it, which Ibn Batuta came across and wrote on; and references to the island and the peak in the writings of Ashraff, a Persian poet. The only other reference to Alexander travelling to the island comes from Pascal-François-Joseph Gossellin, a French historian who wrote of Onesicritus, the pilot of Alexander’s fleet, visiting the island. Onesicritus does mention Taprobane, but nothing proves that he visited it, or that Alexander ascended the Peak on his horse Bucephalus. As for Ashraff and his work Zaffer Namah Skendari in which he dwells on Alexander’s visit, his story is too fabulous despite its extensive description of the country: a description that would not have been too difficult to procure from secondary sources, even in his time.

In actual fact, Alexander sent his naval chief Nearchus to explore the coast from the Indus to Mesopotamia, making it unlikely that he came across, even less landed at, Sri Lanka, as Gosselin claimed. Valentia (1811) was among the first English writers to doubt the veracity of Gosselin’s findings; his extensive critique of the latter’s Recherches sur la Geographie des Anciens lays to rest all assertions that Alexander crossed the Indian Ocean. Another possible view, more tenable, is that Iskander may have actually been Skanda, a literal reference to the mountain, or – and this is not as hard to buy as the Alexander thesis – Murugan. As Skanda, he became a popular mountain deity of the Sinhalas and Veddas; it may well have been that he “officiated” the Peak and its surroundings before his cult shifted to Kataragama.

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