Sri Lanka tours: pilgrimages to cultural and historical sites

For awe-inspiring views of impressive landscapes, don your walking shoes and visit Sri Lanka's most popular pilgrim sites
Adam's Peak is a popular religious site in Sri Lanka
© BT Images
By Time Out editors |

Being a country with a rich cultural heritage, Sri Lanka's tours mainly comprise of various pilgrimages to cultural and historical sites. These journeys are always enjoyable, but some of the more arduous treks may only appeal to more hardcore adventurers. The most sought-after pilgrimage by both locals and foreigners is the trek to Adam’s Peak, which can be completed within two days via three different routes with varying levels of difficulty – at the top you'll find the shape of a footprint which has significance in nearly all of the religions practiced in the country. If you're up for an epic journey that includes walking through the Kumana wilderness, join the pilgrims of the Pada Yatra instead – this multicultural pilgrimage typically takes two months or more (barefoot!), beginning in Jaffna at the northern tip of the island and ending in Kataragama in southern Sri Lanka. 


Adam's Peak

icon-location-pin Hatton

Adam’s Peak or commonly known as the Siri Pada is one of the most popular pilgrim sites in Sri Lanka. Its popularity extends to all communities regardless of religion and is also well-known for its scenic topography. The mountain towers over a height of 2,423 metres and has the shape of a footprint at the zenith, whose significance has touched the lore of almost all religions practiced in the country. Even if you aren't a believer, the journey and the awe inspiring view upon reaching the top, especially the sun rise, is something that should not be missed. There are six routes in total, though only three are used, from which a trekker or pilgrim can reach the Adam’s Peak. The Hatton route is the most preferred and said to be the easiest. Another route that is commonly used is the Ratnapura-Palabaddala road, known as the Raja Mawatha, the king’s road, which is believed to have been used since the ages of the kings. However, if one loves a challenge: the Kuruwitta-Erathna road, which is hardly used will provide a sufficient trial. 


Pada Yatra

Pada Yatra is a preamble to the Kataragama festival where pilgrims travel on foot  from Jaffna, the northern tip of the island to Kataragama, the southern coast. Traditionally the starting point of this pilgrimage is the Nallur Kovil in Jaffna, and devotees may take several months to reach their intended destination, travelling through the Kumana National Park on foot as well. It is an arduous journey and pilgrims depend on the hospitality of strangers, accepting alms, walking barefoot and sleeping in temples or under the open sky. If you are looking for an adventure that is of a completely different nature along with some spiritual enlightenment, then Pada Yatra will undoubtedly give a fine dose of both.



icon-location-pin Mihinthale

Mihintale is a revered site among the Buddhists of Sri Lana as it is beleived that this is the place where Mahinda Thero first encountered King Devanampiyatissa, which led to the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Son of King Asoka of India, Mahinda Thero has first called out to the king as he chased after a deer from the mountain of Mihintale and as such it is now a place that is worshiped and visited by many due to its religious as well as archaeological significance. An ancient hospital with a medical bathtub is located at the foothills on the other side of the steps of the mountain and there are 1,840 stone steps that lead to the apex. The climb gets trickier towards the Aradhana Gala, reputed as the exact spot where Mahinda Thero has called out to the king. Decorated with numerous carvings the Kantaka Chetiya is a circular stupa at the end of the first set of steps. There are significant sites to encounter during the climb, such as the refectory with inscriptions on rocks, the Ambasthala Dagaba where King Devanpitaissa and Mahinda Thero met the cave of Mahinda Thero (said to be the place where the Thero has resided) the Maha Stupa and the Kaludiya Pokuna, a pond.

Attractions, Religious buildings and sites


icon-location-pin Nainativu

Nagadeepa also known as Nainathivu is located off the coast of the Jaffna peninsula and is regarded as in islet that is significant for both, Buddhists and Hindus. The famed Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, Nagadeepa Temple and Naha CVihara are some of the religious sites that are visited by pilgrims who travel to the islet.  Believed to have been mentioned in the ancient literature of Tamil Nadu, this islet has pilgrims and visitors year around. According to folklore the island was under the Nagas and the  ‘Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya,’ was built as a tribute to Lord Buddha by a Naga King. 



icon-location-pin Kataragama

In Hambantota district the Sithulpauwa Raja Maha Viharaya is a site of religious importance to Buddhists. Roughly translated as the ‘hill of the quiet mind’ the viharaya was a full fledged monastery where Buddhist monks learned and preached. The temple is located atop a rock (400ft high), hence one must climb a flight of stairs to get to the summit where the brilliance of the dagoba, rock caves and the view can be witnessed. The main temple has wall paintings from the 2nd Century and inscriptions. The temple’s surrounding is a natural habitat for wildlife, hence spotting a deer, a boar, sometimes even an elephant, is a possibility. The temple is within easy distance of the Yala National Park and could be visited at the same time.

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