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Digital Subscriptions > Psychologies > December 2019 > Seeking solace in Sri Lanka

Seeking solace in Sri Lanka

As the island paradise of Sri Lanka welcomes British holidaymakers once more, two writers embark on contrasting journeys to recover and recharge
PHOTOGRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES; ELLEN TOUT; GRACE HOLLIDAY

HIGHLAND TREK ON THE TRAIL OF THE GODS

Soul-seeking Ellen Tout sets offon a moonlit mountain pilgrimage, and learns to let go

IT’S MIDNIGHT, AND WE’RE SNAKING through the tea plantations of Dickoya. I want to rest my weary head on the window of the minibus but, to keep myself awake, I check my kit. As we approach Adam’s Peak, I forget about the lure of sleep in my distant colonial tea planters’ bungalow.

We arrive at one in the morning, when the peak is a mere silhouette. Standing at the foot, all I can see are the glimmering lanterns of pilgrims making their way to the top. If we start the four-hour climb now, we’ll be rewarded with sunrise views.

Every night, pilgrims flood here hoping to see the peak’s hallowed footprint, or ‘sri pada’, an indentation in the rock near the summit. One of Sri Lanka’s most sacred places, it is where faiths unite – some Muslims attribute the footprint to Adam, Hindus to Shiva, Christians to St Thomas and Buddhists to Buddha. My guide, Sujan, says locals may make the climb 10 times in their lives, to mark occasions such as births or to pray for healing when their health is failing.

“No civilisation, just the birds soaring and buffaloes making their way to the lake to drink”

Sweet surrender

At the base, car horns toot and tuk-tuks whizz around in typical Sri Lankan style – drivers unfazed by the pilgrims. It feels chaotic – a glaring juxtaposition in this holy place – but to Sri Lankans, the fusion of modern, ancient and sacred is commonplace. This is a land of contrasts and the unexpected. As I quickly learn, you are wise to accept it and allow yourself to be swept along by the colour and noise.

I’m guided up the mountain by my senses. Although it’s dark, stalls dotted along the steep trail light the path. The aroma of steeping tea engulfs me as I pass. People play music, others sell flowers for offerings and many prepare rotis.

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