Buddhist Pilgrimage in Sri Lanka

One of the most famous of Buddhist scriptures is the account of the last few weeks of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha is said in it to have allowed his followers to erect funeral mounds, called stupas, over his relics. He also says that his followers should go and see the places where he was born, where he attained Enlightenment, where he ‘set in motion the wheel of the law’ by preaching the first sermon, and where he died. Stupas were to be built at such places too. He says that whoever offers flowers at one of these stupas, or gives it a lick of paint, and from doing so becomes calm and happy, will have a pleasant rebirth on earth or in heaven. Later in the same text, when the Buddha has died and been cremated, his relics are distributed. Thus this text, the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, which dates from the fifth or (more probably) fourth century B.C.E., justifies Buddhists in venerating the Buddha’s relics, in building stupas over them, and in going on pilgrimage to places which have witnessed important events in his life.

In this century, with its easy communications, Buddhists from Sri Lanka have once again begun the custom of visiting the sites in India mentioned in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, and parties frequently set off to visit Kapilavastu in Nepal, where the Buddha was born; Bodh Gaya in Bihar, where he achieved Enlightenment; and Sarnath, the suburb of Benares (Varanasi), where in a deer park he preached his first sermon. (Though the text names the place, the identity of the site in northern Bihar where he died has been forgotten.) Indeed, Buddhists from all over the world now make this pilgrimage, as they did in ancient times. Buddhist pilgrims have been among the world’s most famous travellers. Several Chinese Buddhists not only made the journey but left accounts of it; the most famous are Fa-Hsien, c.400, and Hiuen-Tsiang in the seventh century. They visited many Buddhist monuments, stupas commemorating not only events in the life of Gautama Buddha but also his exploits in former lives, and also events in the lives of previous Buddhas (whom non-Buddhists consider mythical). The Emperor Asoka, who ruled most of India in the middle of the third century B.C.E. and did more than any other ruler to spread Buddhism, is said to have put up 84,000 stupas (not a figure to be taken literally). In one inscription he records that he doubled the size of (and later visited) the stupa of a former Buddha called Konakamana; in anOther he seems to be saying that he has made a pilgrimage to the scene of the Enlightenment. This pilgrimage of Asoka’s, c.260 B.C.E., is the oldest one of which we have individual record.

It was Asoka’s son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta who brought to Ceylon both the doctrines and texts of Buddhism and the first objects for Buddhists to worship. Sanghamitta brought a sapling of the Bo tree, the tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment, and that tree was planted at the ancient capital, Anuradhapura, where it and its successors have been worshipped ever since. Saplings from that tree were planted all over the island. Virtually every site of pilgrimage in Sri Lanka has not only a stupa but also a Bo tree.

Sinhalese Buddhists believe, however, that the first Buddhist to visit their country was the Buddha himself. Their ancient chronicle says that the Buddha by his magical power made three (literally) flying visits to Ceylon. The places he visited have always been the goals of Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims; they are listed as ‘the eight great places’. (There is also a list called ‘sixteen great places’, eight of which are at Anuradhapura). The ‘great places’ are distributed right round the island, so that to visit them takes a local Buddhist all over his country, from Kataragama in the south east corner to Nagadipa, an island off Jaffna at the northern tip. That the pilgrimage sites are so distributed as to map out a political unit is not likely to be mere coincidence.

The most picturesque pilgrimage centre in Sri Lanka is a mountain south west of the centre of the island, known in English as Adam’s Peak. The mountain stands over seven thousand feet high, in a beautiful area of hills, jungle and tea estates; it rises almost straight from the land beneath, for it is shaped like a dunce’s cap. The large rock on top has an indentation which is believed to be a footprint. The English name arises because Muslims believe that it was implanted by Adam. Hindus think the print was made by the god Shiva. The Sinhalese name of the mountain is Siripada, ‘Blessed Footprint’, and Buddhists believe that the print marks where the Buddha landed on his third and final visit to Ceylon. Christians have no particular account of the ‘footprint’, but I have noticed that some of them too make the pilgrimage. So the mountain is climbed by Sri Lankans of all religions; and indeed there is a Sinhalese saying that he who has never climbed Siripada is a fool — and he who has climbed it more than once is a greater fool.

The point of the joke is that it is a tough climb. From the normal starting place (though there are two routes) the climb is about four thousand feet, much of it very steep. Indeed, it would be almost impossibly steep were it not for the steps that have been cut into the rock. We do not know when the cutting of these steps began, but it was many centuries ago; many kings, from the eleventh century on, are recorded as having made the climb and taken measures to ease it, such as providing rest-houses on the way. Modern governments have followed the steps of those kings, and have provided handrails where the climb is most exposed and electric lighting, which makes the ascent perhaps less romantic but easier and safer. For the tradition is to climb at night. One then spends the rest of the night at the top, where the rocky platform is large enough to accommodate several hundred people, and there is rudimentary shelter against the wind — for the nights up there are cold, even though it is only eight degrees north of the equator. The great spectacle is at sunrise: the sharp conical shape of the mountain casts a distinct shadow on the mists which veil the hills to the west below. As the sun rises, rapidly dispelling that mist, one can on a clear day see over fifty miles, almost to the western coast. However, one does not stay very long to admire the view, for the descent is exposed to the sun, and most pilgrims hasten to leave the mountain before it gets too hot.

I am not a fool — yet — because I have made the pilgrimage just once, with a group of people from the village in central Sri Lanka where I was staying in 1964—5. They hired a bus from one of the firms which specialize in these pilgrimage tours. In Sinhalese a pilgrimage is called a ‘veneration journey’, but there is no objection to including on such a journey visits to other such places of interest as, say, Colombo airport. For many villagers, indeed, a pilgrimage will perhaps be their one chance to see such sights — this would be less true of the younger generation, who are becoming mobile. The pilgrimage I joined however, was a modest 24 hour trip to Siripada only; our one attraction on the way was a new hydro-electric scheme in the hills.

In the old days, when pilgrimages were mainly on foot, people were much more aware of territory and distance, and pilgrims before setting out would worship their local god, to get his approval and blessing, as it were. Then they might, if they were going far, go and visit the shrine of their regional god, similarly getting his approval for moving into the territory of one of his colleagues. We did not visit any local shrine to inform the village god; he counts for almost nothing in these days of centralized govern- ment. But we did stop at Kandy, the regional centre. Even here, our visit was not to a god; but we went and offered flowers before the Buddha in the Temple of the Tooth. This acknowledged the Buddha’s supremacy; and perhaps also ensured our safe return.

We had set off in the early afternoon. Around nightfall (which near the equator always comes at about six) we reached the area at the foot of the mountain where the road ends. Here there is a large, simple, unfurnished building for pilgrims to rest; in it we ate our provisions. Then in the late evening we began the climb, gentle at first. The region round Adam’s Peak is under the guardianship of a god called Saman. He is a thoroughly benign character, a good Buddhist, and he rides a white elephant who is believed to live on the mountain. At Wesak, the full moon night in May, this white elephant itself goes and worships the Buddha’s footprint, and I have heard it said that one should not go at that time, so as to leave the way clear for Saman; but I do not think that such respectful restraint is observed nowadays. Moreover, pilgrims used to go up Siripada only from February till May, because the rest of the year there is too great a chance of rain (which is uncomfortable, and also spoils the sunrise); but nowadays tourists are taken up at all seasons.

Pilgrims do not climb in silence. On the lower reaches of the mountain there are wild animals — or there were before all the tourists came — and of course it used to be dark. So the tradition is to chant as you go, and in particular endlessly to repeat ‘Our Buddha we worship. God Saman, help us.’

There are several small stations on the way up where one can get a cup of tea. (In 1965 I noticed that each of these tea stalls also had Japanese tins of pilchards, though I never saw one sold!) Tea, chanting and conversation shorten the climb. Many of my companions were barefoot and some women carried babies, but we all got to the top within three hours, and went to bow down before the footprint, access to which is regulated by a monk. The print itself is disappointing to see because it has been cemented over for its preservation; evidently the indentation is far larger than a human foot. Pilgrims drop small coins and feel calm and happy. They also pay their respects to Saman, whose small shrine is just below the top. The rather cold night’s wait — one can never believe from below that it will be so cold up there — is punctuated by the clanging of a bell. Despite the saying, some pious people climb several times to earn more merit. The custom is that anyone who had climbed more than once rings the bell when he or she arrives to announce the number of his or her ascents. So one cannot help interrupting one’s doze to try and hear the record for the night.

In the grey light before dawn everyone crowds to the eastern edge of the platform. The first glimpse of the rising sun is greeted by cries of ‘Saaaa’ — the exclamation of religious satisfaction and participation. Then soon it is helter-skelter down the mountainside. Buddhists believe that it is the duty of pilgrims to recount their experiences to those who have not been lucky enough to make the trip. Then all can share in the pious emotions generated by the experience. In fact, the empathy of the listener may be even more vivid than the feelings of the actual pilgrim, his religious joy and hence his spiritual progress as great or even greater. And the pilgrim too doubles and redoubles his merit by affording this opportunity for joy and tranquillity to his audience. May all beings be well and happy!

Further Reading

The text referred to above, the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, is translated as ‘the Sermon of the Great Decease’ by T. W. Rhys Davids in Dialogues of the Buddha, volume 2 (constantly republished by the Pali Text Society, London).

For further information on Sinhalese Buddhism in practice, see my Precept and Practice, Oxford 1971; pilgrimage in chapter 3. On Adam’s Peak see S. Paranavitana, The God of Adam’s Peak, Ascona 1958.

Back to top