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Volume: V, Issue: I, January-December 2014



The search of this paper1 is directed to discuss the “effective” aspect of colonial knowledge in the discursive constructions of one of the popular pilgrimage sites, Sri Pada in Sri Lanka. What I explore here is how different authoritative discourses emerge about Sri Pada from the different colonial powers, Portuguese (1505-1687), Dutch (1687-1896) and British (1896-1948). As we now know, authoritative discourse on the ‘colonized’ was largely produced through the agents of the colonial governments, military personnel, Christian missionaries, philologists and administrators. In this regard, Sri Pada was not exceptional. I am aware that these forms of knowledge production change with changes in the practices of colonialism. In this respect, I investigate what gets identified and counted by colonial authorized knowledge as ‘Adam’s Peak’. Such an investigation is now not new to anthropology and the human sciences at large. In the last two decades there a large body of knowledge has been  produced to unpack “a particular construction of colonial knowledge”, under the sub-discipline the ‘anthropology of colonialism’ (Pels: 1997). But there is a limitation in such analysis, in my view, because most of the “decolonizing projects” in South Asia (India and Sri Lanka) have located their fields of work and expertise in the 19th and 20th centuries to unpack ‘British colonial knowledge production’ and they have paid scanty attention to  ‘pre-British knowledge production’ for example, as far as India and Sri Lanka are concerned, the Portuguese and the Dutch ‘colonial knowledge productions’.  In my view, a reasonably comprehensive understanding of culture, religion and history of the various sub-continental regions in the early 18th century and before, is a prerequisite for our understanding of the transformations which the British instituted.

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“Colonial knowledge was frequently based on misunderstandings that led to an uneasy relationship between knowledge and power. It was often the uneasiness of this relationship that made colonial knowledge, in the end, so effective” (Nicholas B. Dirks. 1992: 176).


This paper discusses colonial knowledge as found in the discursive constructions of one of the popular pilgrimage sites, Sri Pada2 in Sri Lanka. I explore how different authoritative discourses emerge about Sri Pada from the three different colonial powers. As we now know, authoritative discourse on the ‘colonized’ was largely produced through the  agents of the colonial governments, military personnel, Christian missionaries, philologists and administrators. In this regard, Adam’s Peak as it was called by the colonial powers was not exceptional. These forms of knowledge production change with changes in the practices of colonialism. In this paper, I investigate what gets identified and counted by colonial authorized knowledge as ‘Adam’s Peak’.3

Such an investigation is now not new to anthropology and the human sciences at large. In the last two decades, a large body of knowledge has been  produced to unpack “a particular construction of colonial knowledge”, under the sub-discipline the ‘anthropology of colonialism’ (Pels: 1997). This  line of research has been an attractive path for many South Asian scholars, especially, on India (Cohn: 1985, 1996; Guha: 1982, 1997; Dirks: 1992; Inden: 1990; Pandey: 1990; Chatterjee: 1993 and Chakrabarty: 2002) and on Sri Lanka (Spencer: 1990; Rogers: 1994; Scott: 1994; Jeganathan and Ismail: 1995; Roberts: 2001, 2003). Something of the general significance of the emergence of anthropology of colonialism can be captured in the words of Bernard S. Cohn who  has argued in the mid-1980s that “The conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge” (1985: 276, 1996: 16). Cohn’s formulation is helpful to our understanding of Sri Lanka and other “colonized” societies too. But there is a limitation in such analysis, in my view, because most of the “decolonizing projects” in South Asia (India and Sri Lanka) have located their fields of work and expertise in the 19th and 20th centuries to unpack ‘British colonial knowledge production’ and they have paid scanty attention to  ‘pre-British knowledge production’.  In my view, a reasonably comprehensive understanding of culture, religion and history of early modern South Asia, is a prerequisite for our understanding of the transformations which the British instituted.4 Hence, let me first talk about Portuguese and Dutch ‘kowledge productions’ on Sri Pada as  ‘Adam’s Peak’.

Portuguese and Dutch Discourses on Sri Pada

Politically speaking, in the 16th, 17th  and 18th centuries, Sri Pada was situated in the South-West geo-political border territory of the Kandyan kingdom, in other words, in the region of Sabaragamuva, where Kandyan  control was  through the administrative jurisdiction of the officer known as disave (provincial ruler). However, it was easily accessed from the adjacent coastal regions occupied by the Portuguese and Dutch. Hence, Sabaragamuva was sandwiched between the maritime regions and the up country hill regions. In this regard Sabaragamuva was not fully controlled by either the Kandyan kings or the new conquerors of the Maritime Provinces. Interestingly, during this time, Sri Pada temple was mostly controlled by Hindu priests known as andiyas. While economic considerations were central to both the Portuguese and Dutch colonial projects, in the island despite their mercantilist domination in the Maritime Provinces, they also sought to convert the colonized to their respective religions, namely Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. According to the historian C. R. de Silva there may have been about 100,000 to 175,00 Catholics in the South western Maritime Provinces by the early seventeenth century, that is roughly one-third of the population (1975: 84, cf. Roberts 1989: 79). However, by 1911 there were almost 340,000 Catholic populations  in the country (Kuruppu 1924: 51; cf. Stirrat 1992: 204n). As a basis  for economic and catholic expansionism to the interior of the island, the Portuguese military attacked Sabaragamuva in 1599 and captured a considerable part of the region. In this attack they destroyed the main shrine of the god Saman, the guardian deity of Sri Pada, at Ratnapura and constructed a Catholic church and a garrison on this Buddhist sacred site.5 The claiming of Sri Pada as “Adam’s footprint” was first enter into the European discourses was a result of the Portuguese expansionism of Catholic religion in the Island6 This I will explore through the accounts of Catholic Missionary chroniclers of the Portuguese colonial power.

 Accounts of Catholic Missionary chroniclers

Most of the chroniclers whom I focus on here  visited to the island as a vital part of the Portuguese colonial project in the regions, which needed the production of  detailed accounts of the island, its people and the failures of governing them. These accounts were originally published in Portuguese, and later edited and translated into English, and  some parts  into the local languages too. For my discussion I draw on  the English translations of  De Queyroz (1930), Joao Ribeiro (1948) and Diego de Couto (1909); and Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon written much later. Queyroz wrote his account to explain the reason why the Portuguese was failed to establish a Catholic stronghold in Sri Lanka. The most visible fixation in the Queyroz’s, as well as in Ribeyro’s early 17th century colonial accounts, is to homogeneously categorize pilgrims as “heathen”, and the relic that they venerated as a work of “heathenish hypocrite”. This is to  give the impression that non-Christian belies and  popular practices are based on “false” assumptions. Such a stance, according to Malalgoda (1997), had precedents in a Europe that was in the throes of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. In their eyes, resemblances between their own religion and those of others were not simply deceptive, ‘but the Devil, who had tremendous importance in Christian thinking at the time such resemblances themselves were proof that other religions were diabolical counterfeits’ (1997: 67).

However, though these missionary chroniclers disparaged the non-Christian religions as “heathenish” or “false”, at the same time they were compelled to find ways in which to introduce  Europen “true” religious beliefs and practices to the “heathens” and convert them. The religious converstion was reinforced mainly by the use of  force, which became manifest in attacks on the temporalities of the other religions: the destruction of temples and their contents, and the expulsion of their residents and custodians (Abeyasinghe 1966: 206-07), and through imposing Christian belief and practices on the “native” by the strategy of  religious ‘conversion’. This combination of temporal and spiritual conquest,  can be seen in the other chroniclers’ accounts. For example, Robert Knox confirmed that by the mid seventeenth century “the European Nations” had  claimed the sacred footprint site as of the Adam:


On the South side of CONDE UDA [kanda uda] is a Hill, supposed to be the highest on this island, called in the CHINGULAY [Sinhalese], ‘HAMALELL [samanala]; but by the Portuguese7 and the European Nations, Adam’s Peak. It is sharp like a sugar-loaf, and on the top a flat stone with the print of a foot like a man on it, but far bigger, being about two foot long. The people of this land count it meritorious to go and worship this impressions; and generally about their New year, which is in March, they men, women and children, go up this vast and high mountain to worship(Knox 1681: 3).


Indeed, De Couto, another Portuguese missionary chronicler claims that the sacred footprint at Sri Pada mountain was not of Adam, but of a Catholic Saint, Thomas, who also had impressed the mark of his knees upon a stone in a quarry at Colombo (cf. Skeen 1870: 60-61). However, he went to say the Portuguese gave the footprint, the name of the Adam Peak [Pico Adam] and ‘[but] Sinhalese name it ‘DEWA GORATA’ [deviyange rata9].  This claim of De Couto was later put differently by a British military officer, Robert Percival, in his “Account of the Island of Ceylon” in 1803: “The Roman Catholic priests have also taken advantage of the ‘current superstitions’ to forward the propagation of their own tenets, and a chapel which they have erected on the mountain is yearly frequently by vast numbers of black Christians of the Portuguese and Malabar race” (1803: 208 cf. Skeen 1870: 54). Similarly, well-known British administrator, James Emerson Tennent in his text “Ceylon”, points out the conflicting claim of “Portuguese authorities” that the sacred footprint was that of St. Thomas and of the Eunuch of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia (Tennent 1859: 133). Whatever different claims that existed during this period it is clear, that, by the seventeenth century the belief of Sri Pada as “Christian Adam” was an established one. This is further evident in the work of Paolo Da Trinidade, a Portuguese Catholic missionary chronicler who wrote briefly, but, enthusiastically about Sri Pada in his voluminous chronicle of “The Spiritual Conquest of The East”:


There are many notable things found in this island, of which we could make a long description, but we mention only some, both to avoid prolixity and because they do not appertain to our history. And the chief of them is the Peak that they call of Adam. Which is a very lofty mountain at a distance of a day’s march from our fort of Safregam [Sabaragamuva] to the side of the East and twenty leagues from the coast … they say it is the footprint of BUDUM, who is one of their gods and whom they say was a giant, eighteen carpenter’s “covados” tall. Our people [Christians] call it the peak of Adam and say the footprint is his, but its proper name is SARMANALA [samanala] (cf. Peiris et al 1972: 23).


These assertions provide evidence about how the Portuguese constructed a Christian connotation(s) of the sacred footprint and legitimatized them through the religious practices of newly converted Christian pilgrims at the site of ‘Adam’ footprint. Interestingly, there is no historical records that the temple was controlled by Catholic missionaries even when Portuguese power was at its height.  However, Catholic missionaries did not fail to construct Sri Pada as the site of Christian mythologies centred on sacred figures such as Adam, St. Thomas and Queen of Ethiopia.

The Portuguese lost their hegemonic power over the Maritime Provinces in the island to Dutch East India Company in 1656, but, the construction of the mytho-historical Adam around Sri Pada was continued in more complex ways under the Dutch. In 1689, the Ceylon Dutch Consistory assessed the religious situation in the island by letter to the United East India Company.  I quote part of it to show how the Dutch were thought about “natives”, specifically Sinhala religious practices:


The Portuguese, the late occupants of the country, destroyed the dagabas and heathen edifices; and did not tolerate the public exercises of devil-worship. We also issued in 1682 strict placates against all such ceremonies, and inflicted heavy penalties. Heathenism, which for the last years had lost its influences to a great extent, so that many left it for Christianity (cf. Walters 1996: 71).


The Dutch [Protestant] missionaries who arrived after the Roman Catholic ones, Christianity was no less important. Philippus Baldaeus, in the preface dated 15 August 1671 to his book on South India and Sri Lanka, defined “ the noble object” of missionary activity as “ the conversion of souls that were caught in the snares of Satan” (Baldaeus 1960: lxi, cf. Malalgoda 1997: 68).

Under such “noble object” the Dutch took Sri Pada affairs seriously and in March 1672 a group of Dutch soldiers were sent to Sri Pada to examin the footprint10. But to Dutch often confused Adam’s Peak with other rock (hill) temples in the Island, particularly the ancient rock temple at Mulgirigala in the Southern district of Hambantota. This rock temple was identified by the Dutch themselves as “Adam’s Berg’. What might have been the motive, which impelled the Dutch to call this rock temple as Adam’s Berg, but it had confused the Dutch chroniclers themselves after identifying ‘real’ Adam’s Peak by them or might be through the Portuguese chroniclers.11 However, the confusion seems to me remain unsolved even in the main accounts of the Dutch missionary chroniclers, who had produced authoritative ‘knowledge’ on Sri Pada.

In this regard the accounts of Francois Valentyn and Philip Baldaeus are worth excavating at least briefly.. Both chroniclers wished to construct a “concise account” of Adam’s Peak but end up with serious confusion. However, the remarkable feature of their narratavization of Sri Pada is the use of Evangelical language familiar to the missionary and their audiences. In fact Valentyn and Baldaeus have little problem deciding in favour of the historical precedence of Christianity over Buddhism. For Valentyn  “Buddha is a disciple of Apostle Thomas”.

This indicates that the Dutch missionary knew little both about the historical personage of Gautama Buddha and his doctrines, even the places of worship for him.  What is clear in both Portuguese and the Dutch chroniclers’ accounts on Sri Pada in particular and other religions in general is that they were constructed full of errors, misunderstanding and ignorance of the “native” beliefs and practices. In this respect Sri Pada was recognised as a place of Christian worship while making the clear distinction between true religion and false religion. Without such a distinction there could be no justification for the missionary enterprise under neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch.

British ‘Orientalist’ Discourses on Sri Pada:

In the nineteenth century British scholarship on Sri Lankan religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism, further constructed new fields of study to understand these religions as an object. Hence, colonial discursive knowledge productions on these religions were presented by the ‘orientalists’, such as British military officers, administrators and Christian missionaries, who constantly encountered under the lack of interpretative difficulties. But the objectification of those religions was considerably more figurative than literal and this took place purely under verbal encounters, not both verbal and physical attacks, which were widely used under the Portuguese and the Dutch “objectification” of those religions. However, it is not my task to explore the British Orientalist objects of knowledge on “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” or “demonism” in general but to explore specifically one particular object of knowledge on “Adam’s Peak”.

My understanding on orientalist knowledge productions on Sri Lankan religions, however, is best explained through a specific religious pilgrimage site because knowledge about Sri Pada was itself part of the larger colonial production of knowledge on doctrines of Sri Lankan religions and their practices.

My concern with the British productions of knowledge on Sri Pada is not unvarying, because British colonialism itself constituted a changing practice of power and therefore produced and organized historically varying conditions and effects of knowledge. As we shall see, the earliest orientalists discourses, which appeared in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, were different to the late nineteenth century accounts, likewise the early twentieth century.

On the morning of 16 February 1796, the British took possession of the Dutch East India Company’s garrison at Colombo on the southwest coast of Ceylon. It marked the final capitulation by the Dutch of the Maritime Provinces of the island, which they themselves had captured from the Portuguese a century and a half before, in 1656. After nearly two decades in the Maritime Provinces, in 1815 the British became the first European power to establish control over the entire island. The initial annexation of the Kandyan Kingdom was negotiated, but soon after resistance came from a major indigenous uprising in 1817-1818, which met a strong military response from the British. Maintaining control over the newly acquired ‘interior’, or Kandyan hill territory, was the vital project of the British military agenda at the time. In opposition to unknown ‘interior’ lands much of the coastal lands was well ‘known’ to and ‘ordered’ by Portuguese and Dutch colonial projects of conquest and rule that begin in the sixteenth century. For this vital project, the military officials were required to be competent in many fields, such as the judicial and the executive, and also expected to construct a sociological and historical knowledge of the colonized subject of the ‘interior’ regions. As such, the published accounts of indigenous history and sociology of the early British period initiated colonial knowledge about ‘Ceylon’. Undoubtedly the early knowledge productions on the ‘colonised’ largely came through the result of the ‘colonizers’ military project. Surprisingly, such knowledges remain so far, even uncritically, unused in the vastly growing ‘postcolonial scholarship on Sri Lanka’. Hence, my attempt here is to excavate, somewhat limitedly, the knowledge produced about ‘Adam’s Peak’ by the military officers of the British Ceylon.

Knowledge production of Military Officers

As a part of the territorial excavation project in newly conquered land, several military groups were sent to Sri Pada area to report whether the situations of this “wilderness and mountainous territory” still might be a safe place for ‘enemies’. One of main purposes of such military exercise might have been to “search” what had really been going on at Sri Pada temple under the name of “pilgrimage”. For the militarily to undertake those tasks, there was a considerable number of military parties exploring the ‘wilderness’ territory of Sri Pada through its Southern (Sabaragamuva) and Northern (Kandy) territorial ends. Most of the military officers who participated in this exploration project later published their accounts as part of the texts that they wrote themselves on “colonized subject”. Here I use these “colonial military literature” to demonstrate the early British colonial knowledge productions on Sri Pada more precisely ‘Adam’s Peak’.12

The first exploration of this kind was started on 26 April, 1815, by a group of the first Ceylon Rifle Regiment of the newly established garrison at Batugedara in Ratnapura, led by Lieutenant Malcolm. The military party received support from the Headmen of Batugedara, Dolip Nillame. The Lieutenant Malcolm’s account is important in two reasons; it seems to be the first knowledge production on Sri Pada by a British military officer and importantly it also would show us how the British began to “understand” the native’s religion.13 He writes:


“… the route winded with the Kalu Ganga, [lit. the black river] or Kaltura river, which about two miles from Batugedara. On the left bank, there are ruins of a Kandyan fort, erected during the late war to command the ford … .leaving the Gillemalle rest-house, we immediately crossed the Malmelloe river and about half a mile further on, the Maskelle river. … about four P.M we arrived at Palabadoolla, ten miles and eighteen chains from Batugedara. There is a considerable temple of Buddha, and a large rest-house for pilgrims about two hundred pilgrims, of both sexes and of all castes and conditions, were here assembled, some on their way to, and others on their return from, the Peak.   The dance was continued without intermission, to the sound of Tam- a-tams [drums] and other instruments of Singhalese music, until the pilgrims, who were about to ascend the mountain, began to prepare their lights; and at about eight P.M. they proceeded onwards in distinct parties.
The Head Priest [Palabaddala temple] whom I received every possible attention, tried all the persuasive rhetoric he could muster, to prevent me from proceeding further towards the Peak; assuring me, that ‘no white man ever did and never could ascend the mountain’ I soon convinced the benevolent OONANSE [the Buddhist priest] that I was not a white man to be dissuaded from the attempt through any dread of ulterior danger having been well refreshed and  left Palabadoola about eleven at night. After passing three small forts that had been thrown up during the war, we began to ascend the first mountain and about five A.M. we breakfasted upon the rocks … Adam’s Peak still towering far above our headsthe pilgrims in advance of my party were seen climbing up the precipice by the assistance of the iron chains which are fixed in the rock for that purpose … we reached the top between eight and nine A.M. of the 27th Aprilthe area of the summit of the peak is 72 feet long and 54 broad, and is enclosed by a parapet wall five feet high; this has partly fallen down on the east side and remainder is sadly out of repair. In the middle of this area is a mark of Adam’s left foot, called Sri Pada by the Singhalese; but it requires a great deal of help from imagination to trace it out. This sacred footstep is covered over with a small building formed of the most durable wood, 12 feet long, 9 broad, and 4 and half to the tiles, with which it is surmounted. Upon the inside it is enclosed by a frame of copper fitted to its shape, and ornamented with numerous jewels set in four rows, but not of the best gems for to me they looked very like glass.
We were not (I regret to say), provided with an ‘Union Jack’ but we fired three volley, to the great astonishment of the Buddhists, as a memorial to them that a British armed party had reached the summit, spite of the prediction of the priest of Palabadoola we reached Palabadoola about 4 P.M and returned to my quarters at Batugedara the next morning”.


Shortly after Lieutenant Malcolm’s exploration, another military officer explored the same route to Sri Pada and gave an account similar to Malcolm but in different flavour.14 Hence, I have no intention of discussing  that military excavation. However, one particular military officer, Dr. John Davy’s, account on Sri Pada is worth  summarizing here15 Davy published this account in 1821 under the title An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and Its Inhabitants with Travels in That Island, in which he wrote a chapter on ‘Adam’s Peak’. His exploration met with task of the ‘scientific inquiries’ on Sri Pada where he measured and testified the authenticity of the ‘sacred footprint’ and the temple structure. He also measured the height of the mountain and tested the temperature of the air and the water in several locations of the sacred mountain.16 For these tasks he was equipped with a barometer and thermometer which were useful technologies for emerging  “sciencetific knowledge” about the natural world of “Ceylon”.

Such ‘rational’ narrativization of Sri Pada in the early phase of the British Empire was an outcome of its military project of the territorial ‘explorative’ exercise. Before these military exercises, Sri Pada was physically [through actual contact] unknown to the British colonial regime. But by 1830, Sri Pada was a well-known place for them. In the first military exercise, Sri Pada temple and its ‘wilderness’ southern territory was explored and cleared. The first conquest was also symbolized by the firing of three heavy gunshots at the temple premises. The gunfire also indicated that Sri Pada had come under British occupancy and authority.  Similarly, through other military explorations the sacred region was further clarified, cleared and confirmed as an area free from a potential ‘native ’ rebellion against the colonial regime.

Broadly speaking, most of the British military accounts, which appeared in early nineteenth century about Sri Pada, highlighted and inquired ‘what were the pilgrims doing at the temple?’ and ‘what did the temple look like?’ [the structure of Sri Pada temple]. For example, the 1819 exploration provided much detail on the size of the footprint and its genuineness, and the ritual practices of both the resident Buddhist monk and the pilgrims. Generally, these explorations had provided an authoritative knowledge on what Sri Pada ‘looked like’ or  “what could be observed at Sri Pada” but they were  not interested in searching  ‘the history of Sri Pada’ as their fellow officials would do later. In other words, these narratives provide ‘a hegemonic discourse’ on Sri Pada in the early phase of the authoritative knowledge production on the practices of the native religions. But the constructed historiography of Sri Pada was not prominent in the early narratives. In fact, it became visible in much later works of the colonial historians, more precisely in the works of the colonial scholar/administrator. But  in my view these “military  accounts”  provide us with a powerful marker of the particular historical moment in which a new discourse about Sri Pada in particular, religion in general, and the overall project of British colonial knowledge production on “Ceylon” emerged.

The early formation of British colonial knowledge about Sri Pada was largely the work of British military officers in Ceylon in the nineteenth century. Knowledge about Sri Pada was itself part of the larger colonial production of knowledge regarding the religion and observances of the natives. As Scott remind us British colonialism did not constitute an internally unvarying unity. It constituted a changing practice of power, and therefore, produced and organised historically varying conditions and effects of knowledge (1994: 138). The absence of military accounts by the middle of the nineteenth century showed that scholars/administrators of British Ceylon had effectively supplanted them. Orientalism, in other words, became part of the Evengelical Christian technology of subjectification and colonial discipline.

Production of  ‘systematic knowledge’ under Colonial Administrators

The authoritative historical knowledge about Sri Pada were produced after the mid nineteenth century. Hence, we shall see how British colonial power in Ceylon produced systematically ‘a discourse of Adam’s peak’, this time by eloquent scholars/administrators of British Ceylon. This discourse of Adam’s Peak, however, is not static one but was subject to change when the construction of colonial knowledge about history and sociology of the colonial subject was emerging.

By middle of the nineteenth century, economic considerations, rather than purely military ones, were dominant in the government of the British Ceylon. Administrative and military authority was now separated and organized, and the mercantile capitalists and planters were important segments of the colonial bourgeoisie. As a productive outcome of this reordering project, the serious intellectual knowledge production about the colony was also institutionalized. This was after the formation of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1845, which was modelled on existing parent societies in London and Calcutta.17 Most of the founding members came from diverse elements and all segments of the newly emerged colonial bourgeoisie. However, this newly-formed institution was in the beginning dominated by the Evangelical Christian missionary scholars, and scholars from the colonial civil service ‘scholar/administrator’ in British Ceylon. The determinant aims of this intellectual body were to “collect scattered rays of information possessed by different individuals” and to “encourage a literary and scientific spirit…in the island”(cf. Jeganathan 1995: 114-115). Interestingly, many of the major knowledge producers on Sri Pada were active members of this newly established intellectual circle. This is not to say that there were not other forms of knowledge production on Sri Pada in the British Ceylon.18 Given the nature of the subject matter, my intention is to show how British colonial power in Ceylon produced a discourse around ‘Adam’s Peak’.  For this purpose, here I excavate some major works on ‘Adam’s Peak’ by one of the actives members of the RAS Ceylon branch.

Sir James Emerson Tennent, the Colonial Secretary at the time the RAS was founded was Vice-Patron.19 His most influential text, Ceylon: An Account of the Island. Physical, Historical and Topographical, was published in two volumes in 1859.20 Tennent included a concise ‘history’ of Adam’s Peak in his book. His narrative focussed on two points. Firstly, he encountered native religious practices, particularly, around Sri Pada, and, as other orientalists had, he labelled them “superstitious”. Secondly, the account attempted to clear the name of Adam that had surrounded the claim of the religions of Muslims and the Catholic pilgrims. In other words, his attempt was to make a clear distinction between Christianity and the practices of “exotic” religions. This he demonstrated through an attempt to separate Evangelical “Christian Adam” from the “Islamic Adam” and the “Catholic Adam”. His attempt clearly shows how objectification adopted different attitudes toward various religious practices. The substance of the Tennent account exemplified this colonial attitude towards “exotic” religions.

But Tennent attempt was not the final excavation on Sri Pada in the ‘regime of positivist historiographic truth’.21 However, the complete authoritative ‘historiography’ on Adam’s Peak was constructed in 1870 by, another member of the RAS, William Skeen who wrote nearly four hundred pages long text on the subject. In fact, Tennent’s concise history on Adam’s Peak unquestionably had affected to produce an authoritative discourse on Adam’s Peak.  Hence, before examining the work of William Skeen it is worthwhile turning to Sir Emerson Tennent.

Tennent produced his narrative on Adam’s Peak as a part of the description of his “official” journey from the south coastal town, Galle, to the capital city of Colombo. The major component of that journey was to visit to the Adam’s Peak in the ‘interior’ region of Sabaragamuva. He tells us what he ‘observed’ during this special journey and quite similar to the previous narrators he too reported the ‘difficulty of the journey’ to the Adam’s Peak and its splendid surroundings. But his deliberate intention was to construct a teleological narrative on Adam’s Peak.

For such history, as a point of departure, he temporally accepted that the name of the sacred mountain ,‘Adam’s Peak’, was initially derived from the Portuguese word “Pico de Adam”. Then, he constructs his positivist historical account about Adam’s Peak (1859: 642-659). For him, in the first stage, Sri Pada was a site where the Vadda worshiped “for ages” (the age of worship of natural object). “The veneration with which this majestic mountain has been regarded for ages, took its rise in all probability amongst the aborigines of Ceylon, whom the sublimates of nature, awaking the instinct of worship, impelled to do homage to the mountains and the sun” (1859: 645).). In the second stage,  ‘the religious interest became concentrated on a single spot to commemorate ‘some individual’ identified with the national faith and thus the hollow in the lofty rock that crowns the summit was said by the Brahmans to be the footstep of Siva, by the Buddhists of Buddha, by the Chinese of Foe, by the Gnostics of Ieu, by the Mahometans of Adam, while the Portuguese authorities were divided between the conflicting claims of St. Thomas, and the Eunuch of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia’(1859: 652).

This is how he formed or arranged lineal or chronological order in what he calls “phases”. Then he wants to excavate “accuracy” of the origins of each religious faith (“superstition”) related to “Adam’s Peak”. For him that “can be traced with curious accuracy through its successive transmitters” (1859: 653).  Here, Tennent was more keenly targetting the origins of the religious practices of the Catholic and the Muslims but not the Buddhist and the Hindu. This was because these two religious groups traced their faith to Adam and legitimized their religious practices by venerating the sacred footprint as being of “Adam”. In the Catholic case Tennent’s attempt was to show that Catholics are not favour of one particular faith but they conflict with many faiths22. By quoting the Portuguese missionary chronicler, De Couto, Tennent emphasis that Roman Catholics are more in favour of St. Thomas than of Adam: “De Couto pleads more earnestly in favour of St. Thomas”.  Tennent lent the weight of De Couto’s authority on this statement and was convinced that Adam’s Peak is imprinted with the foot of St. Thomas, not with the foot of Adam. What really provoked Tennent’s account is that the “Evangelical mind” (to borrow a phrase from Eric Stokes (1959) rejected or ridiculed the prevailing practice of Christianity at Sri Pada.

Having clarifying that, Tennent goes on to confront the Islamic belief that the footprint is Adam’s. He was puzzled by the origin of the Muslim practices at the Adam’s Peak under the primal man of Christian faith. He surprisingly writes “Strange to say, the origin of the Mahometan tradition as to its being the footstep of Adam”(1859: 654). For him this shocking historical ambiguity would be only solved by referring to a Christian source. Hence, he brought a fourth-century Christian manuscript, which contains a section called “Faithful Wisdom”, and confirmed by referring it as ‘the earliest recorded mention of the sacred footprint of Adam’. Having identified the historical origin of the Adam sacred footprint, Tennent was keen to explain how this Christian veneration entered into the Muslim faith. Tennent blamed Gnostics because for him, they “corrupted the Christianity” by communicating the mystical veneration of Adam to Muslims.  Then Tennent made attempt to clarify how Muslim veneration of Adam gets connected with the sacred footprint in Ceylon. In the religious code of Mahomet, Adam was “the first of God’s vice-regents upon earth” but, the Koran makes no mention the exact place of the Adam was fallen. In “the age of Mahomet, his followers had not adopted Ceylon as the locality of the sacred footstep; but when the Arab seamen returning from India, brought home accounts of the mysterious relic on the summit [in Ceylon]” hence, originated the claim of the sacred footstep as ‘Adam’. Tennent concluded, “it was not till the tenth century that Ceylon became the established resort of Mahometan pilgrims” (1859: 655). In this regard, Tennent clarified the origins of the Christian veneration of the sacred footprint of Adam. Christian veneration was older, more original or more “real” than the Muslim veneration of the Adam’s footprint. The construction of Evangelical Christian supremacy over the other religions, particularly non-Christian (Buddhism and Hinduism) religions, was a major part of the process of the production of colonial knowledge in the British Ceylon.

As David Scott points out, ‘Victorian English Christians in the mid-nineteenth century Ceylon were more discrepant and unaccountable with the observable popular practices of the natives than the avowedly lofty and metaphysical precepts of the religious texts’ (1994:144). Scott’s point can be demonstrated through the Tennent account where he categorically labelled the religious practices at the sacred footprint as “superstition”. Not surprisingly, this was the  eneral categorical understanding of the complex native religious practices by Orient scholarship when producing the authoritative knowledge on natives practices. Tennent disrespectfully noted that ‘The indentation in the rock is a natural hollow artificially enlarged, exhibiting the rude outline of a foot about five feet long, and of proportionate breadth; but it is a test of credulity, too gross even for fanaticism to believe that the footstep is either human or divine’ (1859: 658). Tennent produced a ‘scientific’ site plan of the Temple, which was the first site plan of the temple that had produced in 1841. The temple area was mapped out and documented [its length and width as 64 feet by 45 feet] and also the sacred objects and their locations of the temple were identified, marked and recorded.

After testing the authenticity of the sacred footprint and identifying the temple site ‘scientifically’, Tennent describes the ritual practices at the temple ‘it [ritual] consists of offerings, chiefly flowers of the rhododendron, presented with genuflexions, invocations, and shouts of Saadoo! (Amen!). The ceremony concludes by the striking of an ancient bell, and a draught from the sacred spring, which runs within a few feet of the summit’(1859:658).23 The model of the Tennent’s investigation of the historical and the religious practices regarding Sri Pada was the basis for the later knowledge producers on this subject. His work quoted extensively in Europe and Sri Lanka particularly in the growing “historical” knowledge in the nineteenth century about the island. Hence, Tennent provides an authoritative framework in the production of a hegemonic discourse on Adam’s Peak in nineteenth century British Ceylon.

Textualisation of Adam’s Peak

The construction of the history of Adam’s Peak within this framework is more elaborately represented in the work of William Skeen, who was an active member of the Colombo branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and wrote most authoritative and the comprehensive account on ‘Adam’s Peak’, titled  Adam’s Peak: Legendary Traditional and Historic notices of The Samanala and Sri-Pada with A Descriptive Account of The Pilgrims’ Route from Colombo to The Sacred Foot-Print, published in Ceylon in 1870.24 His text consists of ten long descriptive chapters but eight of them narrate his journey from the capital city of Colombo to Adam’s Peak and the way back to Colombo.

However, his intention in these ‘excursions’ was clear “ There is perhaps no mountain in the world of which so widespread a knowledge exists, as Adam’s Peak. Almost every traveller to, or writer on, India and the East, has alluded to, noticed, or more or less described it. But, considering the sanctity in which it is held by Buddhists, Hindus, and Mohammadans; the numerous legends and traditions connected with it; and the immense number of pilgrims who annually visit the alleged Foot-print upon its summit; it is surprising how little has been recorded by any one author, and what wide and glaring discrepancies appear in the different accounts respecting it which have from time to time been given to the world” (1870:5).   Without doubt William Skeen wants to produce a ‘true’ final account on Adam’s Peak because the knowledge produced  at that point are full of ‘discrepancies’, hence for him knowledge has to be produced by one author in the “regime of truth”.  In other words, for Skeen it is difficult to find accounts on Adam’s Peak that could be treated as “truth”. Hence finally,  ‘the truth of the Adam’s Peak’ must be produced or organized or ordered. He writes about this task “My principle endeavour has been, to bring into one common focus all attainable information; and to describe more fully than has hitherto been done” (1870: 6). Not surprisingly, like other Orientalists, Skeen’s attempt was to construct an authoritative knowledge on ‘every’ aspect of the Adam’s Peak, which is lucidly expressed in the title of his text. No doubt, as Skeen says, “I trust that the work now published may be deemed worthy of a place alongside those of others whose pens in times past have illustrated the history and antiquities of Ceylon.”

Both the Tennent and Skeen narrations on Adam’s Peak are further legitimated as the “true” hegemonic accounts on the subject by being cited not only in the late nineteenth century accounts on Adam’s Peak but also in the twentieth century scholarly writings.  For example, T. W. Rhys Davids, founder of the Pali Text Society, was almost entirely dependent on Tennent and Skeen’s narrations when he introduced Adam’s Peak in his work “Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics” in 1925. This show that how their work immensely influenced the production of knowledge on Adam’s Peak.  Indeed a major element of both Tennent and Skeen’s descriptive projects was the identification of Adam’s Peak as an important site for the British colonial regime.

The Orientalists’ attempt to produce a ‘scientific rational knowledge’ on Adam’s Peak can not be understood in isolation from their attitudes towards the religious practices of the ‘natives’. The Portuguese discourse on Adam’s Peak denied rather than rejected the existing religious practices of the Buddhist, Hindus and Muslims as “heathens” or “idolatry “ and this rejection made use of them to assimilate more or precisely “convert” a group of “natives” into Catholicism through means of “power” or introducing new Catholic “connotations” to the sacred sites. However, the Dutch and British discourses (particularly, the nineteenth century British orientalists, Christian missionaries and colonial administrators,) objectified the practices of the native’s religions but adopted different attitudes toward them while treating them as “exotic” religions. This is partly because the orientalists had seen or defined existing religious belief and practices as “corrupt” or “superstition”, hence, for them “corrupt” practices were incommensurable with the “truth” of the Christianity or more correctly normative Victorian ideas and values of the British Empire. In the case of Adam’s Peak, such ambivalence is readily apparent, and further, it is demonstrated that the orientalists rejected, rather, criticized or ridiculed the religious practices at Sri Pada as “superstition”.25

This is the process by which “Adam’s Peak” came to be systematically identified, and, indeed, constituted in European discourses in the first half of the nineteenth century. At the same time, Sri Pada was identified as a most popular pilgrimage site among  “natives religious” counterparts of the country and apparently became the gaze of the British colonial regime as an important site for physically control.26


Nowhere is the process of the production of colonial knowledge more evident than the colonial encounter with the practices of “exotic” religion. ‘Adam Peak’ was created as a way of assimilating the exotic people they were encountering. Such assimilation, as I have explained, altered historically, with the changes under the different colonial powers. It is quite clear that the formation of Western knowledge on Adam’s Peak was itself part of the larger colonial production of knowledge on British Ceylon. As we see, the early nineteenth century production of knowledge on Adam’s Peak was largely the work of British military men; however, by the middle of the century it was largely produced through the Christian colonial administrators who were much more organized as ‘positivist historian’ under the umbrella of the Royal Asiatic Society. Therefore, the production of knowledge over colonized subjects in Sri Lanka in particular and South and Southeast Asia in general, should not be limited to one particular colonial power, because, ‘colonial history’ in these regions is much more complex and deeper than some of the scholars have thought out. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, failure to grasp of the deep ‘roots’ of colonial knowledge productions that go beyond well over the British colonial projects in these historical regions would be crucial to our understanding of the key term that occur in nineteenth century such as ‘Adam’s Peak’, ‘demonism’, ‘Buddhism’, Hinduism and many more objective concepts.



1. This paper is based on research made possible by a fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

2. Siri-Pade is a popular usage among Sinhala Buddhist pilgrims; Sripadasthana (the temple of the sacred footprint) is the modern official usage; Sumana-kuta (the peak of the god Sumana), Samanta-kuta (the peak of the god Saman) Samonola and Samanala (the Mountain of the Butterflies) are found in the Pali and the Sinhala scholarly writings and popular literature. Adam’s Peak is widely used in European languages.

3. The orientalist knowledge production on Adam’s Peak was not only confined into its socio-cultural and the historical formations but also similar attention was paid to ‘understand’ it ‘botanical and physical worlds’ as well.

4. A lively debate has sparked over the nature of “colonial knowledge” that enabled European colonizers to achieve domination over their colonized subjects in South Asia and even beyond. As a result of this debate two opposing approaches on the production of colonial knowledge have been emerged; one sees colonialism introduces a profound epistemic disjuncture or rupture in the historical fabric of the society subjected to colonialism. Hence, there can be no significant continuities across the production of colonial knowledge (e.g. Inden 1986, 1990; Cohn 1987, 1996; Dirks 1996, 2001; Chatterjee 1993). The other approach is largely conceived as revisionist critique of this post-colonialist view and it sees continuities between the late pre-colonial and early colonial periods (e.g. C.A. Bayly 1998; S. Bayly 1999; N. Peabody 2001; Roberts 2001, 2003; J. Rogers 2004).

5. Skeen, (1870: 122-123) and Bell (1916: 37).  However, Rajasinghe II of Kandy rebuilt this shrine in 1658.

6. However, the Portuguese Catholic missionaries were not at all inclined to believe in the impression as being that of the foot-print of Adam; some attributing it to St. Thomas and others to the Eunuch of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia (see Skeen 1870: 54).

7. Knox says that Portuguese call the Adam’s peak as ‘Pico-Adam’ (1681: 72).

8. Robert Knox, a British marine captain who was imprisoned with his crew for a period of almost 20 years under the Rajasingha II (1635-1687) in the Kandyan royal court. At that time Maritime Provinces were under the Portuguese or Dutch control. Knox wrote his account after his escape and published it as the book title “ An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon” under the publisher of the Royal Society at the Robe and Crown in St. Paul’s Church Yard in 1681.

9. Literally meaning is “God’s country” but this usage usually referred to the “territory of the deity Saman”

10. Skeen, 1870: 70.

11. R. L. Brohier shows some references to this rock temple in Dutch times (see: Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon Vol. xx, July 1930: 1-11p).

12. There are substantial military literature that cited or described of ‘Adam’s Peak’. But, for my analysis I don’t use all the military literature. Some of the excluded accounts are; Lieutenant Holman, R.N visited Sri Pada in 1830 and published that account “Travel around the world “in 1854 vol.iii; Colonel Walker of the 61st Regiment and his wife visited in 1820 and their account was published in Hooker’s “Companion to the Botanical Magazine in 1835; Lieutenant De Butts “Rambles in Ceylon”, 1841: 238-239; An officer, Late of the Ceylon Rifles “Ceylon: A General Description of the Island Historical, Physical Statistical. Vol. ii in 1876: 9-23pp.

13. His account is appeared in J.W. Bennett’s (1843) “Ceylon and Its Capabilities: An account of its natural resources, indigenous productions, and commercial facilities”. Bennett filled several posts in the Southern Province. His services were terminated by the government in 1827 because of accusations against him concerning financial mismanagement, and his attempts to again redress failed (cf. Harris, E.J 1994 [2001]: 60)  

14. To read this account see the appendix of Captain Anderson’s “Wanderer in Ceylon” and Skeen, W. (1870: 341-344).

15. John Davy lived in Ceylon between 1817 and 1819. He was born in 1790, he studied medicine in Edinburgh and obtained an MD degree in 1814, after which he joined the army. His subsequent career saw service in other parts of the world and an impressive list of publications…(cf. Harries 1994: 57). Also see more information about him the John Davy Collection (GB0116) of Royal Institutions of GB or www.aim25.ac.uk

16. He notes that “the extraordinary heights assigned by some old authors to Adam’s Peak of twelve and fifteen thousand feet, are certainly erroneous. According to a rough trigonometrically measurement of the late Lieut. Col. Willerman, the Peak does not exceed 7,000 feet and thus confirming [my] barometrical estimate (1983: 259). However, ‘accurate’ figure was latter found by a well develop scientific inquiry of the late British Ceylon as 7360 feet. 

17. The Calcutta or Bengal Asiatic Society was founded by William Jones in 1784 where early orientalists’ knowledge on Ceylon was narrated and constructed. Subsequently, those ‘knowledges’ were appeared in the highly influential journal of the Society “Asiatick Researches”. 

18. For example: by the late nineteenth century, popular narratives on Sri Pada began to appear  in print media. There are voluminous print pamphlets or ‘folk literature’ what I call them “subaltern pilgrims literature”. Simply written in “popular language rather than a classical literary style” poetic or story forms by non-elitist composers such as leaders of pilgrims groups (nade guru), non-scholarly monk and other ordinary laity (upasaka) but in some literature authors are unknown. To see these literature; Sinhalese pamphlets collection of Colombo National Museum (SP104-A-Z). And also see H. Nevill (1956) Sinhala Kavi (vol..I, II and  III).  These kinds of popular literature have been edited, reprinted and widely distributed. Some of them are still  available during the pilgrimage season

19. Tennent (1804-1869) lived in Sri Lanka between 1845 to 1850 as the colonial secretary. In 1932 he entered parliament as member for the Belfast and in 1841 he became secretary to the India Board and just before he came to Sri Lank he was knighted. Sir Tennent was the third son of a wealthy merchant of Belfast in Ireland.

20. Worth to mention “Christianity in Ceylon” London: John Murray. 1850.

21. I use Foucauldian formula, for him “regime[s] of truth ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and the specific effects of power attached to the true” (1984: 73). In other words, a “regime of truth” orders and organizes knowledge, allowing for truth claims to be made.

22. Farther S.G. Perera noted that ‘Tennent exaggerated the fraction of truth contained in it’ (1919: 8).

23. I have not come across such a place or ritual oriented to the sacred spring.

24. This text was published to mark the royal visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to the British Ceylon and it was also dedicated to him. The text was first published by the W.L.H Skeen & Co in Colombo whereas it was republished in 1997 by the Asian Educational Services in New Delhi.

25. Such discursive criticism did not adversely affect the existing diverse religious cohabitants at Sri Pada. It is clearly demonstrated in some of the late colonial knowledge production that I would like to label as “tolerance discourse”. Such tolerance discourse, for example clearly visible in a book written by a colonial writer, John Still in 1930. Under the separate chapter, title of “A Holy Mountain” he writes:

[A]mong the pilgrims I have seen people of half a dozen races, with as many languages, and at least four distinct religions beside many sects…the tolerance of the pilgrims seemed a thing that might well have been studied by Western ecclesiastics with honour and amazement, perhaps even in shame. I mentioned this tolerance once to a bishop, and was told it was a sign of weakness of faith; persecution. I suppose, is a sign of strength … (15-37).

26. I have discussed elswhere (De Silva: 2014) the legal technologies that were used to control Sri Pada throughout the “British colonial regime.”


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