Having declared from the beginning that this trip would be a spiritual pilgrimage, things fell into alignment in a somewhat magical way. Admittedly, I didn’t spend a lot of time researching my destination. I had a short list of six places identified by National Geographic as Sacred Places of a Lifetime that I wanted to go and other than booking my plane ticket and hiring a private tour guide to take me to each location, I did no other research. In retrospect perhaps that is not the best way to travel. It definitely isn’t my normal plan everything, spreadsheet wielding m.o. But between my hectic work schedule and my marathon training, I didn’t seem to have the bandwidth to do anything more. So I crossed my fingers and jumped in with both feet.
The thin outline of stars were barely visible against the dark skin of my guide’s neck. Charith, my companion for this journey, was kind, thoughtful, and quick to smile. In the many hours that we drove from one sacred place to another, we talked of our countries, our lives, and the rich history of the places were were visiting. At times we discussed the biggest of the world’s ills, at times we listened to the eclectic music playing on the radio: me singing along quietly, he playing percussion on the steering wheel. We lapsed into comfortable silences normally reserved for old friends as we enjoyed the lush green landscape unfolding around us.
Our first stop is the Dambulla Cave Temple. A magnificent structure of caves nestled in the side of the mountain. Each cave adorned with golden Buddhas, stone Buddhas, Buddhas sitting, and standing, and reclining, Buddhas painted on the contours of the walls and ceilings. Many of the frescoes weathered with age. Sections of the temple complex were built in 100 BC the newer ones a mere 1,600 years ago.
The 45-foot high granite Buddha at Aukana Raja Maha Viharaya provided me with a place of peaceful reflection. Built in the 5th century by the then King Dhatusena, this standing Buddha holds his hand up in blessing. A newly constructed classroom overlooks the great statue where young school-age girls study Buddhism.
Sri Lanka’s first capital, the sacred city of Anuradhapura was the center of Buddhism and dates back to the 3rd century BC. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The ancient city’s ruins are be-speckled with dagobas (stupas) marking sacred places and the home of ancient relics. As I approach the first of these sacred structures, I remove my sandals leaving them with an attendant along with the other pilgrims’ shoes. Placing an offering of lotus flowers on the altar, I begin to walk the dagoba’s circuit. the ancient stone is warm on the soles of my feet unaccustomed to walking barefoot. People sit in the shade of a nearby tree and meditate.
As I move from dagoba to dagoba, and the morning progresses toward noon, the heat of the day makes the stone walkways surrounding the dagobas almost unbearable to my tender soles. At times I pause in the shade of a small temple where others have stopped to pray. I listen to their lyrical chanting for a while and then move along.
There are not many foreigners who walk the circuits with the other pilgrims. Most Western tourists come to the dagoba’s edge, take a photo, and move on. For me, it is the magic of walking in these sacred places that I have come for. I am reminded of a friend who once told me, “when I see people connecting deeply to their faith, it allows me to feel more connected to mine.” As we walk these sacred paths, we are one. The locals that I walk with, for whom this walk is a regular ritual, embrace my being with them. I receive many smiles from the elderly. Small children ask me what my name is, thus exhausting all the English they appear to know. A few of the more advanced students can also ask me what country I am from before retreating to the safety of their mother’s skirt.
Reaching the final dagoba in this ancient complex, my feet are raw from the blazing stone. I attempt to walk in the sliver of shade created by the waist high wall that surrounds the sacred place that is believed to house the Buddha’s collar bone. I want to join the others as they walk this circuit too but the pain in my feet is too great. Unlike many of the villagers who never wear shoes, my feet burn. The sun, now high in the sky, has been heating the stone all day and my feet can’t bear it despite my repeated attempts. I am only able to go part of the way and am forced to retreat, flinching slightly with each step, and put my shoes on again.
My last stop in this sacred city is the Sri Maha Bodi Tree. It is believed to be a branch of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment and was brought here from India and planted in 249 BC. It is considered by Sri Lankan’s to be the living incarnation of the Buddha.
Upon my return to the car where Charith is waiting, I make light of my burning feet and laugh off the pain with a shrug as I declare I can’t take my shoes off again today. He assures me he thinks our last stop of the day doesn’t require me to do so and we start off for Mihinthale.
Believed to be the site where in 249 BC King Devanampiya Tissa met a Buddhist monk while hunting who introduced him and ultimately then his kingdom to Buddhism. This mountain peak boasts a large stairway carved into the mountain leading to the sacred sites that mark the origins of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. I begin to climb the stairs along with the many others and we all smile and nod to one another, a quiet recognition of the task we are undertaking in the late afternoon heat.
I find myself walking near a large family keeping pace with the younger and more fit ones as the elders begin to slow. A young woman approaches me and asks if I am traveling alone. A tell her I am and she begins to walk along side me. Her English is good and she asks me questions about myself and tells me of her life as well. A university student, she has returned home for the summer and is on vacation with her extended family. Other family members drift in and out of our conversation as we continue our ascent to the peak.
After some time we reach what must be the entrance to the complex of temples as an attendant there asks us to remove our shoes. I notice that, as was the case for most of the day, here too many of the villagers are walking barefoot already. My sore feet exposed once again – this time to the heat of stone steps – I try in vain to find a shady portion of the stairs to walk on. And yet, with the company of my new friends, I don’t notice just how hot the stone is.
We reach the top of the staircase and by now it is just me, Akshani, her uncle, and cousin walking together. The progress of the others in her family has slowed. First we head to the large boulder that fellow travelers are climbing. Being afraid of heights, I take one look at the metal railing that leads to the thin rope that serves as a railing and the barely chiseled foot holds that wind around the top of this giant boulder and I hesitate. My new friends speak quick little words of encouragement as we begin the climb. Despite the rock’s smooth surface and the lack of grip my bare feet have, I find scaling this rock to be far easier than I expected. The view at the top is breathtaking in every direction.
From here we make our way to the large Buddha statue. Uncle hands me a lotus flower from the offering that he has been carrying and I place it on the altar next to those placed by he and his family. And now we climb even higher to the dagoba where the King’s remains are. Monkeys are eating the flowers left on the altar and I contemplate this as I am irrationally mad at the monkeys for taking people’s offerings. Who am I to say the offerings need to sit? Perhaps their consumption by these wild monkeys are the exact reason they should be left.
As we walk the dagoba the stones beneath our feet move, some quite dramatically, which makes us giggle. We descend the staircase together until we reach the separation point – Charith is waiting for me down this left side of the mountain, their family awaits to the right. I continue down the remaining stairs with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart for the family that I shared this experience with.