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Where Butterflies Go to Die

Sri Pada

SRI LANKA | Tuesday, 26 May 2015 | Views [180] | Scholarship Entry

I came to Sri Lanka during pilgrimage season, a time of year when thousands of religious devotees make a seven kilometer climb up over 5500 steps to the top of one of the tallest mountains in the country - Sri Pada; in the native language, it is Samanalakande - where butterflies go to die.

The pilgrimage is made in the middle of the night, to arrive at the summit in time for sunrise. It starts out peacefully, at a temple where monks tie white strings around your wrist and bless you, marking you with good luck for the journey ahead.

From the bottom, all you see is a chain of lights climbing across the night sky, lighting up the trail and stretching on for an intimidatingly long time. But on the trail itself, Buddhist flags hang above the uneven stairs, and tea shops stay open all night for the pilgrims, some who are missing legs and doing the trail on crutches, some no older than five years, and many taking the thousands of stairs without any shoes at all. I am young and in shape, climbing with good hiking shoes, and I found it difficult; I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for the older man whose arms shook as he managed his crutches, and the toddlers whose legs were barely long enough to reach the next step.

That level of faith is incredible. They put their bodies through this every year in spite of any obstacle, out of pure devotion. Struggling up the mountain and still managing to add their own verse to the chorus of Buddhist chants that carried us all to the peak, still managing to reach that peak and bow their heads in prayer, giving themselves up to their religion.

Eventually, a horizon began to appear, and surrounding mountain peaks poked through the hazy clouds. A monk stood out from the crowd and started chanting, and though it was hundreds of people joining their voices with his, it came together as a singular thread, lassoing the sun and pulling it into sight. As the sun finally peaked over a distant mountain, a silence fell over everyone. I have seen many sunrises, and none have moved me as much as this. We all stood as one at the top of that mountain, looking out at the misty, golden sky, and it was beautiful.

When the sun at last stood full and proud, a group of white-robed Buddhists emerged carrying various objects, bringing them into the temple behind us where many pilgrims had gathered. A ceremony was held in the native language, and then we all descended, legs shaking the whole way down, sore, but completely content.

Tags: 2015 Writing Scholarship

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