18 July 2012

Sri Pada: Peak Heritage of Sri Lanka

BOOK REVIEW

I heard the name before I saw what the name referred to.  It was in the Grade 2 Sinhala text book, forty years ago.  It was a simple story of a family getting ready to visit ‘Sri Pada’, colloquially ‘Siree Paada’.  It was a simple and, for that age, fascinating story unfolding as conversations.  It spoke of religious significance of the mountain and the customs associated with pilgrimage.  It was also a butterfly story, the narrative of thousands of butterflies making the ‘pilgrimage’ to worship the sacred footprint of the Buddha atop the mountain, hence its other name ‘Samanala Kanda’ or ‘Butterfly Mountain’. 

I remember that story being read in class and the point made that it was sacred not just to Buddhists but people of other faiths as well.   It was ‘Adam’s footprint’ according to Christians and Muslims (hence the name ‘Adam’s Peak’), and that of Lord Shiva to Hindus who call it ‘Sivanoli Patha Malai’.
Then I saw it.  It was pointed out by either my father or mother from the Kelaniya Bridge one early morning as we drove to Kurunegala.  It must have been a clear morning.  All I remember is the fact that it stood out.  Then, a few years later, again one early morning, I saw the peak from my school grounds.  Since then I’ve seen the peak from various angles, various parts of the country, from cars and trains and from the foot of the mountain too.  It never failed to inspire.  It must have been cultural in part and partly due to its stand-out physical attributes.  All I know is that it is part of me and an identifier of who I am, as a Sri Lankan, as a Sinhalese and a Buddhist, which of course does not mean that the peak, the name and legends associated with these are any less sacred as per chosen faith to anyone else in this country.

The first time I climbed Sri Pada, it was during the off-season; very few pilgrims, a lot of rain, difficult going and very few kiosks offering tea.  I’ve climbed ‘in-season’ too.  Three times, all from the Hatton route.  I know there are people who’ve made the journey dozens of times.  All that I share with them is the readiness to climb one more time. 
My grandparents have told me that it was an arduous journey, not just the climb, but the ‘getting there’, i.e. to Nallathanni if you take the Hatton route.  But then again, travelers from other parts of the world, famed explorers included, have done it centuries ago.  Development eases a lot of things. Further-comfort-seeking by the comfort-addicted who also have wealth and power to sway policy, can make the road less hard, literally and metaphorically.  Some might claim that the difficulty was part of the culture of affirming and internalizing faith, but that’s a poor argument.  What is more relevant is that making things easier, historically, has gone hand in hand with destroying natural beauty.  This is why, come ‘Sri Pada Season’, relevant authorities and environmental groups move into action imploring pilgrims not to take polythene and not to pollute. 

And it’s about trees too.  It is easy money.  It is about the entire economy, in this instance, because the four major rivers spring from what is known as the larger peak wilderness.  It Is about history and heritage, religion and faith, yesterday and tomorrow.  If this was a Master Card ad, I would say ‘Priceless’. 
It is for all these reasons that the book that I’ve just read, ‘Sri Pada: Peak Heritage of Sri Lanka’, is a must-read for all those who consider Sri Lanka their home.  It is a bringing-together place and a symbol of harmony and the indisputable worth of co-existence.  It is not owned by anyone and yet belongs to everyone, like the sky which my father once described as follows: ‘it does not become any less private although it belongs to everyone else’. 

This is a book that gives us the mountain from countless angels and so many different colours and shapes, every single one awe-inspiring and of the made-for-meditation kind.  There are long shots and close-ups.  It is as though Luxshmanan Nadaraja, outstanding photographer that he is, is worshipping the sacred mountain in countless ways; each click a veritable pilgrimage. 
Nadaraja gives us the landscape and facets of the sacred in faith-multitude.  The clasped hands, unwavering gaze of the devout, architecture and artifacts of the particular faith and even the many coloured and many formed and textured offerings tell the story of journeys, those of individuals and collectives, of those who came before and those who will come later.   Nadaraja’s love for this land of many delights and many sorrows is apparent in his photography in general.  He doesn’t miss anyone or anything, for his eye clearly takes the biotic and abiotic and most importantly captures the relationship between the two: the necessary interaction, the seemingly inevitable violence and the need to inscribe benign into the inextricability.  It’s all there in the book.

‘Sri Pada’, the book that is, is as ‘collective’ as pilgrimage and worship, and as personal as both necessarily are (and that’s not a contradiction).  Sarala Fernando, the Editor of the book must have expended a lot of energy and love to put together the texts.  Ven. Sravasti Dhammika, Nimal De Silva, Yoga Rasanayagam, Asiff Hussein, Rev. Mervyn Fernando, Brendon Gooneratne, Kithsiri Abhayasingha, D.S.A. Wijesundara, Premakumara De Silva, Hema Goonatilake, J.B. Disanayaka, Hans Odoo, Renton De Alwis, Deloraine Brohier, S.W. Kotagama and Anselm De Silva have touched on things they are competent to write on and they’ve all laid it out in a narrative form that complements Nadaraja’s work. 
Between that story in the Grade 2 Sinhala text book and this ‘Sri Pada’, I’ve read a lot about the sacred mountain. I have heard all kinds of legends associated with the peak.  Reading this, however, I realized a lot had been left out or that I had missed a lot in the casual investigation of history, legend and narrative.  Reading it, I felt that Sri Pada or Sivanoli Patha Malai  or Adam’s Peak or Samanala Kanda is a place, a tradition, a history, a legend, an archaeology and a treasure trove that has yielded but surface-scratch to scholars and other writers.  And this, despite the richness of account and description clearly evident in the articles contained in the book.
It is possible to flip through the pages and obtain enough of a ‘story’.  It is possible also to forget the pictures, read the text and get as rich a narrative.  It is hard to say which gives depth and detail to what, text or visual.  But that’s academic.  Together it tells us how rich we are as a nation and how important it is to preserve our wealth, not just ‘the old’ but the fact that this ‘old’ is who we are made of, who we are and who we can be. 

There are, naturally, multiple narratives, real to the adherents and so-so to believers of different accounts, all fascinating nevertheless.  These differences obviously contradict one another, but the contradictions do not find articulation as disrespect in any form at any point of the common journey.  It reminded me of an exercise organized by a senior police officer stationed somewhere in the Central Province at a time when there was ethnic unrest in the country.  He had organized a common pilgrimage of people from all faiths, working closely with the relevant religious leaders in the area.  It had helped, he claimed, calm things down, the idea as well as the pilgrimage that is.  But year after year, without any prompting, that ‘exercise’ finds articulation from different routes, different beginnings and backgrounds, to the same destination.  The point is made in the book in different ways by those who contributed articles and by Nadaraja’s photographic poetry.
‘Sri Pada: Peak Heritage of Lanka’ is a book.  And like all books ‘written’ by those whose love for this land is unquestioned and is marked by innocence, like the photographic collections of Studio Times for example, ‘Sri Pada’ is one which makes people fall in love with this island, over and over again.  It makes us softer.  Since it is about the sacred mountain and since it captures the many stranded tapestry of that thing called faith, it makes us rethink our excesses and assertions. 

We are a people terrified of ourselves, I felt reading this book.  We need not be, it taught me. 
[First published in 'The Nation', UNDO Section, July 15, 2012]
Reactions:

5 comments:

SANDIKA said...

this is so brilliantly written, i love your poetic way of explaining 'our sacred' 'samanala kanda' i love this article.

P.L.J.B.Palipana said...

REALLY A BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE ON ADAMS PEAK.I SAVED IN IN MY COMPUTER.

Dinu said...

Luxshmanan Nadaraja
Photographer par excellence!

sajic said...

Very, very sensitive-both book and article. Thank you.

Ramzeen Azeez said...

So why is it also called Adam's Peak? What history or other narrative bares testimony that the "footprint" is indeed that of the Buddha? Or is it of some other pious person? A footprint on a rock? Is it that a rational possibility? So many vexing questions emerge when shorn of religious fervor.