Up on Alagalla

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It was July, the month of heavy showers in Kandy, when Kirthi asked me if I would join them on their climb to the top of ‘Alagalla’.

As the name sounded like ‘Bathalegala’, the Bible Rock, which I see every time I travel by the picturesque Kadugannawa pass on my way to and from Colombo, I was reluctant to take up the invitation. As it was, I had declined to join their climb to the top of Bathalegala because of the way it had spouted out on its base mountain range with its upright ramparts reaching the sky.

“Does Alagalla look like Bathalegala?” I wanted to know.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember noticing it even from a distance,” Kirthi replied.

“Well, if it were then I am sure that I can not climb it with my touchy bronchial tubes and would-be menopausal knees. Besides, I would be a very slow climber anyways. I might slow you all down.”

 “You’d better give it a try,” Kirthi suggested. “Don’t bother about slowing us down. The pleasure of the trip is for everyone in the team. Isn’t that the way it should be?”

Yes, Kirthi was right. One of the central features of our absurd walking projects that we have undertaken as of late is, ‘the slowest sets the pace’.

So, I agreed to give it a try. But I did not cease grumbling. ‘Why can’t we just walk on gentle sloping village roads as we have been doing? I could only walk the earth, not climb the mountains. Has anyone in the group got a problem to prove his manhood?’ Kirthi did not respond to my grumblings. He might have thought that was probably my way of getting prepared for something totally new.

Next day, by about nine in the morning, we took a bus to Poththapitiya at Peradeniya junction. The bus took a right turn from the road to Colombo at the Pilimathalawwa junction. After travelling in the suburban and semi-village roads for a long while, we reached Poththapitiya junction.

There was another 2 km or so to get to the foot of Alagalla from Poththapitiya junction. Even though we had originally planned to walk that distance, we changed our mind and hired two 3-wheelers, only because I wanted to have known at least one villager, in case we lost our way on Alagalla.

The precaution that I took to not get lost, I was sure, could have disappointed one of the other two members, half our age, of the group who had worked himself into somewhat of a passion for getting lost in the mountain at least for a night, as it happened to some other hikers to Alagalla. 

Upon hearing our intention, one of the 3-wheeler drivers responded with an indifferent surprise. “No one climbs Alagalla during these months,” he said. Since we were firm, he offered to help us with a guide.

The guide came up to a point where the identifiable path on a comparatively flat landscape with tea plantations and cows ended. He told us that there was no way for us to get lost now since there was only one route up from that point onwards. Kirthi got the phone number of the guide and we said goodbye to him.

Left alone in that unfamiliar not-so-climber-friendly wilderness, we first picked off the numerous welcoming leeches from our shoes and socks and started our climb on something that remotely resembled a route used by civilization.

Owing to the ever present possibility of slipping down and hurting myself on that heavily sloping route, each step was an effort for me. The ground was such that I could only figure out where to put one foot at a time. And, that was it for me all the way up. Others were climbing easily, or so it seemed.

As the distance between others and me increased by a geometrical series, Kirthi slowed down to keep pace with me. He encouraged me saying that it was okay for me to take my own time to climb because there was no real hurry to get to the top. I reacted, “Well, I am at my top most speed.” That made us both laugh.

Each inch of progress that I made on Alagalla’s steep slopes with my most ordinary pair of canvas shoes and 60 kg bodyweight made me feel good, real good. I was full of humour as it happens during those bizarre activities that one undertakes. I joked, “Well, at least now I know that I’ve got a heart that works.” It was in fact thumping away at its top notch speed. And, what’s more, I could hear it loud and clear with my own ears.

On my way up those unsociable slopes, it was often that I paused to catch up with my breath. At times, I needed to sit on anything on the way to got control of my reeling head. Eventually, however, I did get to the top of Alagalla, climbing something that, in theory, un-climbable by me.

With our backs on the safety of the rock-capped peak of Alagalla, we stood next to each other and gazed into what seemed nothing but a wonder. Stone-speckled greenery rippled away from us in all directions. Distant hills enchanted us with their heavenly display of different shades of veiled blue. Not-so distant peaks dispatched invitations to our triumphant limbs. Meandering rivers and the feats of civilization below and the invincible heaven above elevated us to the centre of the universe. Clouds of rapidly shifting shapes rushing over our heads whipped by the wind starkly reminded us the impermanence of our existence. 

We stood there gasping and feeling lost. It seemed that we were at the end of our mission for the day. The younger ones wanted to walk about on the top, but we did not know how to do it without dropping off the mountain, until Kirthi located and led us on something resembling a route.

As we walked, we spotted something like cow dung everywhere about our way; a lot of dung, for that matter. It was only later that we realized that the route we were following was that of the wild buffaloes, a group of whom we were fortunate(!) to meet on our way down.

Hearing us, it appeared, they moved to a side, camouflaged themselves among the barks, and stared at us silently through the creepers with their moist wide eyes set upon marvellously fine featured faces.

It seemed a miracle that they did not run into us, though it might have been just common sense from the buffalo-point of view. The presence of them on Alagalla explained the muddy ridden water hole that we saw up on the top as we traversed it from one end to the other.

The top of Alagalla is a long, narrow strip of stone-strewn land matted with thorny creepers and a thin forest cover edged by precipitous rocky slopes. The story has it that the Kandyan kings got death sentences on their prisoners executed at the top of Alagalla from where the prisoners were pushed down. Despite that gruesome history and the nauseating feeling associated with it, we discussed death by righteous killing at length, when on top of Alagalla. 

As we were finding our way through the thickets on the top of Alagalla, it struck me that there existed a very real possibility for one of us to simply drop dead. Strange enough, however, that the thought of probable death in the hands, rather the mouths or hooves, of many a creatures to which Alagalla was home, did not frighten me. There seemed not much of a difference between life and death, when being up there.

The top of Alagalla had a way of stripping me off the burden of life that the civilization made me shoulder. The nakedness that Alagalla imposed on my spirits made my emotions soar. I was engulfed by a strong feeling while on Alagalla in which I fancied that Kirthi and I were up there some three decades ago, newly married and looking for a meaning for our life together.

After a couple of hours up there, strolling and seeing and chatting and listening, having nearly lost our route once, somewhat happily, as it added to the excitement, we began to climb down, which once again appeared an impossible task.

We needed at least an extra leg, if not two. I had with me a climbing gear, sent from USA by Vidharshana, who has been climbing Colorado’s fourteeners and wanted us to climb as many mountains as possible. Others got themselves some strong branches of trees picked up from the forest floor.

Both on our way up and way down, we broke our journey on a somewhat flat rock protruding out of the plunging slopes of Alagalla. That was the only place in the whole of Alagalla with adequate space for four of us to sit, away from the ever thirsty, or is it hungry?, leeches and the ever blowing wind.

The boundless view unfolded ahead of us was simply breathtaking. So much so, we totally ignored the fact that the rock surface on which we were seated was not really that flat and not really that wide.

Even though we felt like wandering gods taking a brief break on the heavenly clouds, we would have looked like framed pictures on a wall for an earthling. But, we did not discuss that among ourselves. We took out the gingerly oil soaked ‘dosas’ and the enchanting banana muffins that I made for that occasion, and happily ate them enjoying without guilt every bite of it.

When we got back to Poththapitiya junction on our walk away from Alagalla, the fact we had been on Alagalla already seemed a distant memory, except for the nearly dislocated knees and the stiffen thighs of mine. When we got to the Pilimathalawwa junction on the Kandy-Colombo road, the contrast between the wild and the civilized worlds laboured through our mouths, “Can’t believe we were up there only a few hours ago.”

One strange, though the key, feature of my Alagalla climb was that I did not notice the imposing 650 odd meter height of Alagalla above its 500 odd meter base terrain with its intimidating slopes on my journey from Peradeniya to the foot of Alagalla. That was the reason I dared even climbing it. ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ I have heard it many times, but experienced it only that day.

Climbing Alagalla has changed the way I looked at myself forever. I realized that I reached the top of Alagalla only because, I did not, for once in my life time, try to stay in control of my life, and let life took me where it wanted to. Well, it opened a whole new world for me. A world full of mountain peaks.

It was wonderful to get up there, feeling all the way up that it was something that you really, really can’t do, and then to sit on the top of it looking far and wide, below and above, thrilled by those once distant clouds playing hide and seek with you, and accepting rain as it came, leeches as they climbed, potential falls and even possible brisk death at a stink of a snake.

‘Isn’t life wonderful when taking as it comes?’ That must be the fairies of Alagalla whispering.

- August 2009

 

 

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Uploaded on August 21, 2009