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The Piece of String

Ox-Travels Anthology (c) 2011.

An unexpected encounter atop Sri Lanka's holy mountain.

"Is this the world's longest staircase?" asks Tomas on the way up. Had I the energy I would've replied that it sure felt like it. My companion had dragged me up this mountain kicking and screaming, though after the first hour, my legs had lost the ability to kick.

They say only a fool would visit Sri Lanka and not climb Adam's Peak. They also say that only a fool would climb it twice.

Officially, the world's longest staircase is next to the Niesenbach tram tracks in the Swiss Alps. And while it is conceivable that this service stairwell has stories written about it, I doubt they are as numerous and as beguiling as those surrounding Adam's Peak.

Known also as Sri Pada and Butterfly Mountain, this cathedral of rock and shrub has attracted pilgrim, explorer, king and holy man for many millennia. Each year the curious and the faithful throng by the thousand to negotiate these jagged steps and greet the sunrise. To watch the mountain's shadow fall upon the clouds and to bow before the footprint at the summit.

We're here to see a man about a piece of string. Not just any piece of string and, according to Tomas, not just any man. The string in question is a pirith noola, an innocuous thread tied around the wrist to ward off evil and offer its wearer protection and strength. Tiger Woods, a lapsed Buddhist, has taken to wearing one, presumably to ward off raunchy text messages from porn stars. He has pledged to wear it for the rest of his life.

Many Sri Lankan Buddhists sport a pirith noola as a symbol of piety or as a visual reminder of a solemn vow. You can see one below the batting gloves of '96 World cup hero, Sanath Jayasuriya or on the wrists of politicians trying to prove their spiritual chops to skeptical constituents.

You can pick one up for free at any Buddhist temple around the country. Why we have to climb 5 hours worth of stairs to get one is a question Tomas promises to answer once we reach the summit.

A cheerful Scandinavian investment banker in his 30s, Tomas is a frequent visitor to the island his mother hails from. Like many Sri Lankans who haven't grown up here, he sees magic in sights that jaded locals like myself find prosaic. Where I see a piece of string, a pointless climb or an overrated footprint, Tomas sees a mystical quest.

The footprint and its mysteries are shared by four religions. Not unlike how the mountain is shared by four rivers; the Mahaveli, Kalu, Walawe and Kelani. Each using a different path to reach a common destination.

Buddhists believe Lord Buddha harnessed the summit's energies to levitate upon it. Hindus see the colossal imprint of Shiva. The Muslims believe it may belong to the first man, Adham, while some Christians claim that St Thomas the Doubter ascended to heaven from here.

I decide to ignore my misgivings and the silly proverb. It is my second visit and though my muscles and joints would beg to differ, I do not feel foolish for being here. My last climb was as a teenager and was less a spiritual quest and more of a box to tick. I raced to the top in under 3 hours and stifled disappointment that the foot didn't resemble a Hollywood walk of fame imprint.

The relic was gigantic and adorned with symbolic carvings. In terms of realism, as Dr. John Davy described in 1817, it "bears some coarse resemblance to a human foot" Unimpressed, I then dozed off during a grey and rainy sunrise.

This time, for physical as well as spiritual reasons, I take this ascent slower. I stop to admire the trail of lights weaving across the rock face, chat with pilgrims at the tea shacks along the way, and watch the full moon throwing silver over the evergreens. I gaze at the summit and wonder how many cups of tea before I reach there.

That's when Tomas tells me about his last visit. It was in December of 2004 and he'd just been dumped by his fiance of 8 years. "I told everyone I was searching for my roots, but that was bullshit. I just wanted to go somewhere where no one knew my face."

He braved the mountain solo and was smoking a cigarette on a rock, when a man in robes leading an entourage of stray dogs offered him a cup of tea. The man wore thick spectacles and carried his tea in a plastic bag that looked like a water balloon filled with rust. The man poured the liquid into a coconut shell, offered it to my friend and then bummed a smoke.

"I didn't know holy men smoked," I say, catching my breath.

"That's what I thought," says Tomas. "He said it was for a friend."

The man claimed to have lived in a cave on the mountain since he was 13. He said that he has climbed to the top every full moon. He then offered to read Tomas' palm.

"You have lost something that you think you will never find," said the man. "But you are wrong."

The man then pulled a reel of thread from his cloth bag and without warning began muttering in tongues and wrapping the string around Tomas' wrist. When he had finished he smiled at my friend and said something that haunts Tomas to this day. "You are stronger than you think you are. You will use your strength to help people who have lost more than you."

Three weeks later, Tomas found himself in the south of Sri Lanka, clinging to a coconut tree, watching refrigerators, bicycles and screaming children engulfed in whirlpools. As the tsunami raged around him, Tomas clung to that tree for 27 minutes staring at the piece of string on his wrist.

Sri Pada has attracted visitors from all corners of history. Morroccan traveler Ibn Batuta writes of pathways filled with giant roses and multi-coloured flowers, a cave spring filled with fishes that no one can catch and a blessed footprint adorned in gold, ruby and pearl. He also mentions "chains of faith" that dangle from the edge of the peak, offering intrepid pilgrims a final test of devotion.

In the 15th century, Persian poet Ashraff records that these iron chains were placed here by Alexander the Great. The king and his companion, Greek magician Bolina, arrived in Sri Lanka or Taprobane, as it was known circa 300 BC, to take a break from empire-building.

Today the chains are replaced by steel ladders, railings and steps. While the climb takes me longer than my previous effort, I feel something magnetic and indefinable pulling me towards the summit. It could be my will, though it feels like something far more powerful.

Tomas spent 6 months after Boxing Day 2004 as a volunteer for the Red Cross, burying corpses, clearing rubble, manning phone lines, arguing with bureaucrats, and playing with silent children. His ex-fiance called asking him to come home and he politely asked her not to call back.

We see many characters on our way to the top, but none of them resemble the man from Tomas' memory. Tomas extracts a browned morass of thread from his wallet. It resembles hair pulled from a bathtub plughole.

"I've worn this for the past 5 years," he says, not without pride. "I think it's time I got a new one."

We marvel at old ladies in white negotiating the incline, armed only with walking stick and prayer. There is the great bell at the summit that pilgrims toll to signify how many journeys they have taken. One of these ladies would ring that bell 19 times and smile at me kindly as I sheepishly rang it twice.

We are followed all the way by one of Sri Pada's many guardians, a brown mongrel dog, who stays three paces behind and stops whenever we do. We meet a Japanese monk who says he climbs twice a week. I look forward to watching him ring the bell several hundred times, but suspect that he may be well past such vanities. He carries a tiny drum, which he taps in rhythm with his footsteps. We ask him if he knows of a bespectacled monk who lives in a cave. He shakes his head.

We meet followers of the sun, who gaze at the descending poya moon with pleasure, their camera lenses poised to capture the morning rays.

But mostly it is the pilgrims. Observing customs that date back to100 BC, when King Valagamba first discovered this mythic footprint. They bathe in the icy streams of Seethagangula, say pansil prayers and tie a coin wrapped in white cloth for protection. At Indikatu Pana, some place a threaded needle on a shrub to mark the spot where the Buddha mended a torn robe.

Over the centuries, dynasties of kings have helped clear this trail and raise the temple at the top. We arrive there a few hours before sunrise and visit the shrine to the God Saman, one of the many deities protecting this mount. Tomas is visibly disappointed and I suggest he get a pirith noola from the nearby temple.

"It's not the same," he says. "If you saw the guy, you'd understand." People see divinity in strange things. I realize that belief can build mountains. Higher and sturdier than the one we had just conquered.

We join the queue to lay flowers at the feet of the foot. This time, I am more respectful. I marvel at the weighty symbols carved upon its face and imagine the original foot relic, said to be buried under the rock and set in jewels.

A brass lamp, set there by King Wickremabahu in the 14th century, casts a light that never goes out. We look for some shadow to sit upon. The florescent bulbs at the peak, tastelessly kept on throughout the morning, are an aesthetic and spiritual irritation. We opt to settle below the summit and watch as the sky changes colour.

Tomas is silent. December 2004 was a turning point in his life and the pirith noola is the thread that links him to his spiritual awakening. I have met too many false prophets in my time and I keep my cynicism to myself. I see divinity in guitar riffs, in camera angles, in a well-told joke or a nicely-executed cover drive. I have visited cathedrals, mosques and temples, but God does not speak to me. Even in the holiest of places.

But then the sun emerges and stirs a primal awe in everything around me. Silver gives way to gold. Orange rays obscure the white poya glow. The distant sound of chanting melts into the silence and then gradually we begin to see it. The shadow of a pyramid lengthening over the clouds. It sits there for less than 45 minutes, like a message from God that we are unable to decipher.

Herman Hesse had a transcendental experience at this very spot, gazing upon this revelation of light and shadow. This is where Arthur C. Clarke imagined a portal to the stars. Maybe it's not necessary to decipher a message in order to understand it.

The descent is hard. Paralysis has set into my lower body and I am grappling with the well-trodden path, the rising sun and the whims of gravity. But I am also seeing things that the darkness hid from me. The pitcher plants, the hub-nosed lizards and the pink orchids. The towns in the distance and, somewhere behind the clouds, the ocean.

From the corner of my eye I recognize the dog who followed us on the ascent. A scraggy mutt with a broken tail, he darts off to the side of the trail, where he joins three other dogs in various states of disrepair. Behind them, bearing a cloth bag and a tree branch is an upright man in his 50s, wearing saffron robes and large spectacles.

Tomas stops in his tracks, clasps his hands and gazes at the man. He holds up his tattered thread and walks toward him. The man smiles as the dogs circle his feet.

Sri Lankans smile for many complex reasons, but usually to disguise confusion. I can see from the eyes behind the thick spectacles, that this man does not have the foggiest idea who my friend is, but recognizes a customer when he sees one.

We are led off the track through shrub. The man's name is Chittasena and his English is better than Tomas' Sinhalese. He repeats his story. The cave he lives in was occupied by a great ascetic who died when Chittasena was 13. He has been climbing the mountain and looking after its strays ever since.

I am less than convinced. The cave we are led to is a cavern of kitsch. It smells of kerosene and houses a bed, a large alarm clock, a shrine to an unnamed diety and piles of magazines. While it is perfectly acceptable for a holy man to read Newsweek, I wonder if the three rattraps in the corner of his home are in harmony with his beliefs.

Tomas is enthralled as the man shows us how he has diverted a nearby stream to run past his front doorway. The door is adorned with Buddhist symbols and overlooks a river. "This is where I meditate," says Chittasena, eyeing me with suspicion.

He speaks in an even tone with long pauses, as if he is listening out for something. I wonder if I am being unduly harsh in my judgments. He offers to read my palm and I decline. "I'd rather not know my future," I say.

"You like to travel," he says. "But you don't like travelling."

I ignore him and point at a black eagle soaring below the temple. Two yellow-eared bulbul birds, hop from step to step as if observing a vow to abstain from flying. And finally, standing before the cave of a monk I do not fully trust, I see the butterflies.

They fly in waves from all directions to die on this holy mountain. Some say they are angels who leave trails of jasmine leading to the footprint. Some say they are souls flying into the arms of God. I am seized by the sudden urge to follow them. To bear witness to their final sacrifice and to toll the bell a third time.

Tomas gets his fresh pirith noola. He tells the man of his tsunami experience and we share cups of tea. There is no bumming of cigarettes. Tomas has long given up and so has our friend, it would appear.

He tells us that he rarely talks to tourists or to the false monks from the Japanese monastery who climb the mountain in designer sneakers.

"This is my last year on the mountain," he says with a smile. "It is time for someone else to look after this cave."

Do I tell Tomas that the man is a charlatan and that he knows less about the universe than we do? Do I tell Tomas that luck saved him from the tsunami and that tragedy awoke his spiritual conscience? That nothing in the world has anything to do with a piece of string?

Of course I don't. Instead I bow reverentially and offer the man my wrist. I think of the shadow of the mountain in the early morning sun, of a lost boy clinging to a coconut tree and gaze at Chittasena lighting the flames of his shrine. Despite myself, I recognise something serene and dignified about the way he carries himself.

I see the look of contentment on Tomas' face and decide that kindness is a far greater force than logic. I offer Chittasena a donation and ask for his blessing.

Many of the world's holy places are fought over, but Adam's Peak is not one of them. For that I am grateful. It is shared by the rivers, the ravines, the curling trees and the many creatures that stumble to its summit. It tells us that all faiths have more in common than they think. That perhaps all religion could be one.

On the way down I gaze at the pirith noola on my wrist and decide that I will hold onto it until it falls off. I accept that the point of the journey is the journey. And that being in a hurry doesn't get you there faster.

Because it doesn't matter what mythology you choose to accept or what the sunrise at the summit chooses to reveal. What matters is that you accept the world for what it is and that you withhold judgment on things you do not understand. What matters is that you surrender to the holy mountain before you. And that you take the journey a step at a time.

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