Sri Pada, Fascinating but Dangerous Journey to Mountain Top with Chains before steps were made

article_imageWay back in the 1940s an imaginative Education Department had prescribed John Still’s poetic masterpiece "Jungle Tide"[1930] as a text for the S.S.C. exam. It was there that I first read of the climbing chains of Sri Pada.

"Inscriptions I found ….engraved upon links of the mighty chains that hung from the precipices and once were the only way to climb them; but none of all of them dated earlier than the kings of the Polonnaruwa dynasty of about the twelfth century A.D.I was told a tale of these chains. They hang over cliffs exposed to the full fury of the monsoon gales. Their links are formed like stirrups,and the pilgrims used, until steps were cut less than half a century ago [1880?]to climb them as a kind of swaying rope ladder. A whole family of Sinhalese villagers once set out on pilgrimage, children and their parents and their grandparents too; and when they came to the precipices and were all hanging on the long chain like a living rosary, a violent storm sprang up suddenly and the chain was swung fiercely from side to side. But they still hung on,though they dared not move in either direction, up or down . Then came a tremendous gust like the breath of an angry god, and the chain was swung so far to one side that it hung no longer over the pilgrims’ path, but clear above a frightful fall into a valley far below. And there, buffeted by the

storm, unable to climb or descend, the people hung while their strength endured, and then fell off, one by one, as fruits fall from a tree. First the old and the very young, the women, and last of all the men, while the folk of their village who had been waiting for their own turn to climb upon the chain, and who had watched the whole tragedy while they cowered against the face of the angry mountain, saw in the end the strongest of them all, the last of his race, leave hold and go spinning down to the tree-tops far below."

John Still’s starkly simple, yet dramatic , description of this human tragedy yet haunts my imagination as it did my adolescent self many decades ago imagining the despairing

wails of these doomed pilgrims as they hurtled to the chasms below.

 The Mahavansa  

The very earliest account of the origin of these chains is found in that great historical chronicle – the Mahavansa:

"In the same reign [Parakramabahu II 1225-1269]the Minister named Devapathiraja, at the behest of the King, improved the road leading to the Sacred Mountain by constructing bridges across a number of streams, built rest-houses along the road, installed the image of the God [Saman] on the terrace of the summit which was enclosed by a wall, installed iron chains on iron posts to make the ascent easy.

Alexander the Greek

However, a strange Persian legend invests these chains with greater antiquity than is generally accepted by scholars. It credits Alexander the Great [4th century B.C] ascending Sri Pada, and forging these chains. This is an achievement of which, interestingly, no contemporary record exists – and also throws a spanner into the Conqueror’s generally accepted chronology.

Ashreef, a Persian writer of the 15th century, in his poem of praise to Alexander Zaffer Namah Sehanderi, spoke of these chains. In an episode the Conqueror and his companion Bolinus (Apollonius?) devise means whereby they may ascend the mountain of Serendib "fixing thereto chains with rings and rivets made of iron and brass, the remains of which exist even at this day, so that travelers, are enabled to climb the mountain…"

Marco Polo the Venetian 

The incredible Venetian Marco Polo, envoy of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan,

who voyaged to Sri Lanka in the 13th century also refers to these wondrous chains.

"In this island there is a very high mountain, so rocky and precipitous that the ascent to the top is impracticable except by the assistance of iron chains employed for that purpose."

Ibn Batuta the Moroccan

In the 14th century Ibn Batuta ,the great traveler from Morocco, did climb the Holy Mountain and also wrote of its climbing chains.

 "The mountain of Serendib is one of the highest in the world….The ancients have cut something like steps, upon which one may ascend, and have fixed in iron pins, to which to which chains are appended, and upon these those who ascend take hold . Of these chains there are ten in number, the last of which is termed ‘the chain of witness’ because when one has arrived at this and looks down, the frightful notion seizes him that he will fall"

Lieut. Malcolm of the 1st Ceylon Regiment

 No foreign traveler seems to have ascended the Peak for the next five hundred years – though Buddhist pilgrims piously trudged up its forbidding heights to pay homage to the Sacred Footprint as they had done for countless centuries. The great kingdoms of Rajarata had fallen to Indian invasions and disease. Lesser kingdoms – Gampola, Kotte, Sitawaka and Kandy - jostled for supremacy . The armed incursions and dynastic intrigues that characterized these Dark Ages ,however, never dimmed the flame of piety that drew an unending stream of Buddhist devotees to ascend the Holy Mountain and pay homage to the Sacred Footprint. The Portuguese and Dutch invaders who occupied the Maritime Provinces for three hundred years never dared venture into the Peak

Wilderness, devoid of strategic importance and guarded by fierce Veddahs loyal to the King of Kandy.

This last foothold of a two thousand year kingdom fell at last in March1815 to "perfidious Albion", not in battle but due to the treachery of venal nobles. Nine months later , on 26 December 1815, Lieut.Malcolm of the 1st Ceylon Regiment became the first Englishman to climb "Adam’s Peak". He describes his ascent with military brevity:

"The pilgrims in advance of our party were seen climbing up the precipice by the assistance of the iron chains which are fixed to the rock for that purpose."

Captain Anderson "Wanderer in Ceylon"

Shortly after Lieut.Malcolm’s pioneering climb, Captain Anderson followed in his footsteps and wrote of this journey, and his hair-raising experience on the climbing chains, in his memoir "Wanderer in Ceylon":

"[the pilgrims] at one spot take a slightly different but awfully perilous route, up a broad iron ladder close by, neither straight on, nor at an angle in front of, but at a [slope] falling to the right, sideways from the rock; the slightest slip from which will hurl the pilgrim to destruction in the abyss below. And up this ladder one of our party actually made the ascent. I did not see him being in the rear, too busy on my own account to pay much attention to the proceedings of others; but when I saw the ladder, its [leaning] to one side made me shudder, and I gladly turned to the chains.When about half way up the final flight down came a company of returning pilgrims. To proceed onwards was impossible, and to recede I dare not; so clutching firmly to the chains with both hands, with the toes of one foot hitched on to a step, and those of the other pressing against the bare vertical rock, I swung aside until all had passed and then swarmed up with an alacrity which made me wonder at myself."

Major Forbes Climbs the Peak

British officers, in retirement, were heirs to a tradition of writing their memoirs. Major Forbes was an exemplar of this tradition. In his "Eleven Years in Ceylon" he describes his climb up ‘Adam’s Peak’ in 1827:

"Pursuing our way, the path was steep, and two or three chains afforded assistance, which, although useful might have been dispensed with, until we came suddenly to a point where it was necessary to turn to the left on the brink of a tremendous precipice. My feelings at this place may have been sublime, of which it has been asserted terror is on great source; they were not pleasant ; but, repressing them, and firmly grasping the chains; a few minutes brought me to the summit"

Major Skinner’s Blind Spot

The indefatigable road builder Major Thomas Skinner did a scientific survey of ‘Adam’s

Peak’ in 1838 as he writes in his "Fifty Years in Ceylon". His account is so bare of detail, that one may wonder whether he ever went up the mountain but for a vivid sketch of viewing the shadow of the Peak;

"One morning as the sun was rising, the shadow of the mountain was thrown across the whole land and sea to the horizon, and for a few minutes the apex was doubled, and so

clearly marked that the little shed over the impression of the Buddha’s Foot was clearly distinct in the shadow."

The gallant Major then goes on to speak of his prowess in racing to the summit:

"One very active headman begged me to give him an opportunity of racing me up the cone of Adam’s Peak, which is a steep bit of ascent. We started and he went off at a great pace, and was out of sight in a few minutes; but half or three-quarters of a mile was enough to blow him. I passed him and was on the summit forty minutes before him."

What is extraordinary in Skinner’s account is the total absence of any description of pilgrims, railings or iron chains ! He might as well have run up a bare mountain.

That is all he has to say !

Sir James Emerson Tennent :Scholar, Civil Servant

The Victorian era was a period of great scientific inquiry, discovery and exploration.

This was the age of Charles Darwin, Richard Burton, Alexander Cunningham [who rediscovered Buddha Gaya] and George Turner[translator of the Mahavansa] Unlike the Portuguese bent on conquest and conversion, and the Dutch bent on trade, many later British civil servants took a great interest in studying all they could about Ceylon in a systematic and scientific manner . It was in this period that the intellectually

brilliant civil servant Sir James Tennent was posted to Ceylon and soon began work on his magnum opus "Ceylon: An Account of the Island – Physical, Historical and Topographical" published in 1850. Its comprehensiveness, enriched by personal observation is truly amazing.

Tennent climbed the Peak himself and writes this account:

"On approaching the highest altitude vegetation suddenly ceases and, at last, on reaching the base of the tremendous cone which forms the pinnacle of the peak, further progress is effected by the aid of chains securely riveted in the living rock." He describes and sketches the structure sheltering the Sacred Footprint:

" a pagoda like canopy, supported on slender columns, and open on all sides to the wind." Sadly, there is no drawing of the climbing chains.

William Skeen: Photographer

A few decades after Tennent , photography rapidly displaced drawing as a medium of art and illustration. William Skeen , in Colombo, was the perfect exemplar. He traveled widely across Ceylon ,with his cumbersome apparatus, photographing everything of interest – scenery, people, festivals, temples and ruins. His wonderful photographs are collectors’ items today and often reproduced. Skeen climbed the Holy Mountain and his book "Adam’s Peak" [1870] gives a detailed and vivid description of the Peak and his ascent. He records, interestingly, that there were more than one set of chains. He writes:

"…when the perpendicular ascent is encountered…[it] is only to be surmounted by means of by the help of several massy iron chains, which are strongly fastened at top, let down the precipice, and again secured below. These chains are donations to the Temple, and the name of the donor is engraved on one of the links made solid for that purpose. The height of the precipice is about 200 feet, and many holes are worn in the face of the rock by the feet of the numerous pilgrims who have ascended it with the assistance of the chains….

" ..the first of the chains , which from this point [Sita Gangula] are slung at intervals to assist the pilgrims in the most difficult parts of the journey. From the length of this chain made from strong half-inch iron, with links a span long, we imagined it might have originally been slung on the site of the hundred steps. Very likely before those steps were cut, since after their formation, the necessity for such aid would, to a great extent, be done away with…..

"…we at once came to the Maha-giri-dam[or dan]-kapala –"the great-rock-chain-pass"- a ledge with a scant foot-hold and a jutting (rock?), then a small bare sloping slab, and then the chains and a ladder, which more than all else effect and test the pilgrim’s nerves. This constitutes the final ascent and is divided into five portions; the sloping slab just mentioned, a set of chains to assist one up a well-nigh perpendicular flight of sixty steps cut in the living rock; another sloping rock, with here and there a few built-up stones; a fight of forty in-cut steps still steeper than the last a third slab rock immediately outside the wall that encloses the Sri Pada. On either side of the steps several sets of chains, each from six to eight fathoms long and formed of various large oblong and triangular

fashioned links clustering down flat against the nearly (perpendicular?) cliffs; and by their aid, and on the topmost flight, the additional assistance of a chain on stanchions…"

Henry W. Cave: Author

In 1908 Henry W.Cave wrote his amazingly comprehensive "The Book of Ceylon" subtitled ‘A Guide to its Railway System and an Account of its Varied Attractions for the Visitor and Tourist’. He traveled the length and breadth of the Island, met officials and people of all sorts and illustrated it with a fine collection of his photographs.

He vividly describes his ascent of the Peak from the Ratnapura pilgrim route:

"The most appalling obstacle is reached when the traveler, having climbed to the summit of a precipice, is met by a cliff whose crest literally overhangs the spot on which he stands. To scale this wall of rock with its projecting cornice without artificial aids would be utterly impossible.An iron ladder, however has been affixed to the perpendicular wall, and at the top the defiant projection has to be overcome by means of links let into the rock and by the aid of chains attached to the sloping slabs of granite which crown the cliff.The stoutest heart cannot but experience moments of anxiety as this point is reached, and the feet leave the firm ladder to be inserted in the rusty ill-shaped links. There is nothing between us and the yawning abyss save the links, which grate and sway as, with every nerve o’erstrained, we find ourselves over the next thirty yards of bare and sloping rock. So great is the peril, that the slightest hesitation or the merest glance to right or left might unsteady the nerves and end in a fatal catastrophe…….

"How they [the chains] are fixed is a mystery impossible of solution…The summit is reached by climbing an almost perpendicular precipice by the aid of a chain called the "chain of creed on each link of which the weary pilgrims utter dome expression of

devotion as they attain to the miniature plateau where their longing hearts are satisfied before the Sri-pada or sacred footprint."

John Still of "Jungle Tide"

John Still who wrote the wonderfully evocative ‘Jungle Tide’[1930], from which I have quoted the opening paragraph of this article, was an amazing man. He started life in the Crown Colony of Ceylon as a tea planter and went on to a fruitful career in archaeology and. later, in many other positions in government. He fought in the World War 1914-1918 and was a Turkish prisoner-of-war. He climbed SriPada many times from the early 1900s.His chapter ‘A Holy Mountain’ is, perhaps, the best in the book and movingly describes the pious discipline of the humble pilgrims and the ancients in whose footsteps they climbed:

"There was no policeman there, and no one in authority at all, so far as I could have learnt; but the place was holy ground, and the tolerance of the pilgrims seemed a thing that might have been studied by Western ecclesiastics with honour and amazement,

perhaps even in shame."

Bhikku Shravasti Dhammika: Modern Pilgrim

The Ausralian Bhikku Shravasti Dhammika briefly describes the chains in his superb pilgrim’s guide to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist sites in his "Sacred Island"[2008]:

"Go to the stairs leading down to Ratnapura and descend for about 30 meters. You will notice that soon the stairs become very steep. Everywhere else the handrails are helpful, but here they are absolutely necessary. On the right you will notice large chains riveted into the rock. In the thousand or so years that the Ratnapura path was the only way up the mountain, these chains assisted the final ascent and they are mentioned in most ancient accounts."

Bhikku Dhammika ws kind enough to give me more details in a personal communication:

"Last time I was at SriPada the chains were definitely there. A ‘sample’ was actually wired to a railing on the very top. Then hammered into the steepest and rockiest part of the Ratnapura track, not far from the top (30 or 40 ft) were rivets holding chains. They were quite unusual in that the links were flat (rather than round) and elongated (About a foot long) with the smith’s hammer marks clearly visible, and they were very rusty.Rust marks on the rock suggested that they (or perhaps earlier ones) had been there for a long time. I noticed other rivets and holes in the rocks where other rivets must have once been. I imagine they are not mentioned much by later writers is because after the Hatton path became the main path to the top the Ratnapura path (and its chains) were rarely used."

Unseen, Unhonoured….

The greatest mystery about these chains is not their origin [see Mahavansa] but the total

lack of any visual record of the chains themselves and their donatory inscriptions . Not one of the British climbers ever bothered to sketch them or copy their ancient inscriptions. Nor has any cameraman, from Skeen[1870] to Nihal Fernando[2008] ever photographed them.

Thus, this millenium old unique achievement of Sinhala engineering and craftsmanship

is doomed to sink into obscurity ‘unseen, unhonoured and unsung’ –

unless, of course, a young scholar-pilgrim of today will be inspired by this paper to use his miniature camera to record these wonderful chains for posterity and" the serene joy and emotion of the pious" as their makers and donors intended.