A myth that rises to the challenge

The Sacred Footprint
July 11, 2003

Adam's Peak, a 2,243m mountain in Sri Lanka, is one of Asia's major pilgrimage sites. At the top - nowadays reached by two of the longest stairways in the world with iron chains to help ascend the final stage - there is a sacred footprint.

"The Buddhists of Sri Lanka believe it to be the footprint of the Lord Buddha," writes Markus Aksland in this short but scholarly guidebook - and call the peak Sri Pada. "Hindus regard it as the footprint of Shiva. Muslims think that Adam, the first man, planted the foot on the summit of this mountain when he was thrown out of paradise. A few Christians consider the footprint to be made by the apostle Thomas on one of his missionary voyages."

No wonder it has inspired comment for more than a millennium: from the Sinhala kings of the island, Marco Polo or, in our own time, science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka. His novel The Fountains of Paradise locates a "space elevator" on the peak. In the novel's afterword, Clarke comments on his single climb to the summit: "My legs were paralysed for several days afterwards. But it was worth the effortI I have since explored the mountain with much less effort in a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter, getting close enough to the temple to observe the resigned expressions on the faces of the monks, now accustomed to such noisy intrusions."

Aksland's sympathies are with the monks. Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of Buddhist pilgrimages through the ages, but a final chapter is devoted to "Muslim, Hindu and Christian myths". It is valuable if specialised background reading. I wish the book had been available when I hauled myself up Adam's Peak.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

The Sacred Footprint: A Cultural History of Adam's Peak

Author - Markus Aksland
ISBN - 974 8304 65 5
Publisher - Orchid Press, Bangkok
Price - £12.99
Pages - 192

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