At the top of Sri Lanka’s holiest mountain, Sri Pada (‘holy foot’), is a giant footprint believed variously to belong to Lord Buddha, Shiva and Adam, and therefore sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Join the pilgrims setting out in the early hours to reach the peak in time to see the rising sun cast a perfect conical shadow across the mist below.
Brave the persistent lotus sellers and mendicant monkeys who line the path up Dambulla Rock to the five cave temples that are among Sri Lanka’s most staggering artistic achievements. The crowning glory is the 50-m-long Rajamaha Viharaya, encircled by dozens of gilded Buddhas, with intricate and dazzling murals covering every inch of the walls and ceiling.
Mihintale’s great white dagoba commands the eye for miles around. The climb to the top leads up ceremonial stairways, past jungle-draped dagobas and tumble-down monastic cells to the cave where Mahinda received King Devanampiya Tissa and Sri Lanka Buddhism was born. From the granite lookout of Aradhana Gala there’s a staggering view over mountains and plains to the city of Anuradhapura.
Hunched in the shadow of Sigiriya, this remarkable granite outcrop shelters the remains of a monastery, established after King Kasyapa took over the monks’ caves at the Lion Rock. From the Buddhist temple at the base, paths climb past richly decorated cave temples, stone-walled cells and a brick reclining Buddha. The view from the summit, over Sigiriya and endless mountain ranges, is extraordinary.
The jungle-clad mountain range of Ritigala forms the highest point between Sri Lanka’s highlands and the mountains of southern India. Its ruined forest monastery was home to a fiercely ascetic order of monks. Ritigala’s cool wet microclimate is rich in medicinal plants, supposedly deposited here (as the Ramayana tells it) by the monkey god Hanuman.
In a staggering clifftop setting off Trincomalee, the temple of Koneswaram boasts one of Sri Lanka’s most enviable locations, overlooking glittering blue sea. Inside, coconuts crack and pilgrims file around colourful bas-relief sculptures of the ‘demon king’, Ravana.