Nattamis at Adam’s Peak : Bearing another’s burden | Sunday Observer

Nattamis at Adam’s Peak : Bearing another’s burden

As pilgrims throng the paths to Adam’s Peak, load carriers or nattamis in the vernacular, play a vital role in meeting the needs of the many thousands who make the journey. The Sunday Observer, visited Adam’s Peak to get a closer look at the lives of those who trek the trail with loads as heavy as 50 to 80 kilograms at times, to ease pilgrims’ lives.

5,500 steps. Up and down. Day in.Day out. Sometimes twice, but often once - accompanied by a few short distance trips. That’s what he does to earn his living, six months a year.

A patient diagnosed with hypertension visiting the nearest medical clinic once a month for his free supply of medicine, Velu Maradamuttua, a resident of Nallathanniya smiles. “Unlike others, I need to take frequent breaks. So, I’m unable to make it to Maluwa (the peak) twice a day,” he says.

We are on the busiest pilgrims trail at Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) and speaking to us is a welcome break for Velu.

For six months a year, December to May, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims trek Adam’s Peak to worship Sri Pada the sacred footprint at the top of the mountain. It is a place which brings people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds together in worship. Each religious culture claims the footprint to be of their own significance - the Buddhists of the Buddha set on his 3rd visit to Sri Lanka; the Hindus of Lord Shiva; and Muslims and Christians of Adam the first man on the Earth.

Three main paths lead to the top, starting from Nallathanniya or Delhousie in Hatton; Erathna/Kuruwita and Palabaddala in Ratnapura. Preparations usually start end of November to provide necessary facilities for pilgrims thronging the trails on full moon day in December, and thereafter. Wayside kiosks spring up to Mahagiridamba (meaning the great rock climb) the steepest, therefore the hardest part of the climb. Pilgrim facilities are available also at the peak called Maluwa. Velu is one of some 40 load carriers who make this arduous journey at least once a day, for six months a year.

It is love that has kept him trudging up and down the 5,500 steps, usually with 40 kilograms, for the past three years. Joy lights up his face as he describes the achievements of his children. “My eldest daughter passed the O/L exam this year and has started her A/Ls. Second daughter is in Grade 10 and my son who passed the Scholarship examination is in Grade 6.” As the children grow older, education needs more money, says Velu. The expense for stationery, uniforms and extracurricular activities is sky rocketing. “Books, pens, pencils and uniforms, are all expensive, and we have to pay a lot of money for tuition classes. Education is the best gift we can give them, so about three years ago I started carrying loads to the top.”

The story of Yogarajah of Mulgama is one close to Velu’s. “My mother fell ill and we needed more money to treat her. That’s how I started this job,” he explains. Yogarajah had kept his job as a driver aside and had been carrying loads up and down Adam’s Peak for the past four years.

“This is how I collect money for her medication,” he comments. His regular job as a driver in the city, provides him with a monthly salary of Rs.15,000. But, “Nothing is left when you have to eat out, morning and night,” laments Yogarajah.

Quick money is the attraction here. Goyarajah and his friend Thiagaraj from Sami-Malai who prefer to carry gas cylinders up and down, say their highest earnings per day had been between Rs. 3,000 to 3,500. On a good day, he can earn about Rs.5,000, says Velu. Ramakili, one of the longest surviving load carriers affirms.

His highest earnings per day had surpassed Rs5,000. However, they are the days that alms givings are held at the peak, which are few and far between. At such times the path is usually crammed with pilgrims, making the climb difficult.

What they get from each trip depends on the weight and the distance, they explain. A usual load weighs about 25 kilograms. Gas cylinders, water bottles and perishables such as a bunch of bananas, fall into different categories. Starting from Rs.250 to 300, for a distance of 2.25 km to the Nallathanniya Bridge (known as RathuPaalama), to Rs. 1,500 to 1,800 up to Maluwa, a distance of 5 km from the base including the steepest climb of around 750 m.

The maximum would be Rs. 2,500 taking goods to the shops at the Erathna/Kuruwita path, a distance of 7 to 10 kilometers.

On the way down, whenever possible, they bring down an empty gasoline cylinder at a charge of Rs. 850 or any such weight that is available. Nonetheless, all is not rosy for them at Adam’s Peak.

There had been many days where his daily haul brought only about Rs. 700 or where he could not find any work, explains Velu.Yogarajah,Thiagaraj and Ramakili agree. “This week, I received only about 500 per day,” laments Thiagaraj. Yogarajah and Ramakili had fared better with an average of Rs. 1,000 per day.

What do they do during the months where no activity takes place at Adam’s Peak. Last year he worked as a waiter in a wayside restaurant at a wage of Rs. 20,000 a month. Though they provided meals, the salary didn’t even cover the educational costs of his children, moans Velu. Additional costs such as, accommodation, travelling and clothing were high.

“Though I get Rs. 1,000 to 1,200 a day working as a mason in cities and towns close by, I can’t save even Rs. 200 a day,” Thiagaraj confirms. His daily expenses include meals and travelling. So are Yogarajah’s. Ramakili who works as a mason in Colombo and the suburbs gets Rs. 1,200 a day.

He also earns from odd-jobs when building work is scarce. Nevertheless, with four children schooling, and him being employed elsewhere spending on meals and accommodation, “we barely make ends meet,” he admits.

So, how much would they earn per month at Adam’s Peak? Thiagaraj and Yogarajah are reluctant to comment. Velu and Ramakili do not mind giving the numbers. On an average, they earn about Rs.35,000 to 40,000 a month here, they say. There are days and months where they earn more, but sometimes they would earn nothing. However, end of the month they always earned more than their earnings from their regular jobs, says Velu.

Have they faced any problems in working as load carriers? A lot, they say. First, securing work itself is difficult. “Sometimes, even if you sit there the whole day people don’t recognize you as someone to give their work. They look at your face and give the work to someone else,” says Ramakili. Climbing up and down ‘Mahagiridamba’ the steepest part is also a risk, according to Yogarajah and Thiagaraj. “You have to be very careful that you don’t place even one step amiss.”

It is a risk to both the goods they carry as well as to their lives. The maximum period they can do this kind of work is 10 to 15 years. The heavy loads tax their bodies. Ramakili is an exception. He had been carrying loads for the past 20 years. “Work here is a sure risk to my life,” says Velu. He fears that his failing health would prevent him from working at Adam’s Peak .

Though the travails are many, at the end of the day it is worth the effort, they say. It brings in more money and keeps them closer home. Velu likes the time spent with his wife and three children, so does Ramakili with his family of four. Both of them spend six months in Colombo and the suburbs, sometimes without visiting their homes for three months at a stretch because, “regular travelling is expensive.” Yogarajah and Thiagaraj say, all what they had saved so far, had come from what they earn for six months at Adam’s Peak.

“Where can we go for help? Who would help us,” they question. “Here, at least we can earn according to our willingness and ability.”

That’s more than enough for them to keep going.

Pix: Susantha Wijegunasekera