Mountain at a Center of the World

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“Mountain at a Center of the World” examines the pilgrimage site of Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak, in Sri Lanka, explaining its worldwide significance across multiple religious traditions over the past millennium. Drawing on a year of ethnographic fieldwork, as well as many historical sources, including original translations of Sinhala and Tamil texts, I present a history of the Peak that argues its multi-religious fame is due to its physical landscape—including prominent relief, visibility from sea, verdant woods, watershed, and wildlife. As these natural elements recur in past and present storytelling about the Peak, I suggest that the mountain helped structure human history by making its own myth.

Using a methodology that refashions geological theories of stratigraphy and crystallization for reading sources in the humanities, the Peak’s polytemporal multi-religious accounts are presented in a layered comparative perspective. The natural environment is the common denominator for tracking similarities and divergences across traditions, showing the Peak translated into Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian stories, with rhetorical ends ranging from political rule to spiritual attainment. As both commonalities and conflict exist in this landed history, I propose that religious pluralism at the Peak is best understood like the mountain’s ecology, describing environments that are cooperative, if not always harmonious. In turn, pilgrimage practices and ecological concerns meet in conservation projects at the Peak, where religious messages may be productively used for environmental ends if they recognize full pluralities—including all multi-religious actors sharing the pilgrimage, as well as other assemblages of living and nonliving forces shaping the planet






McKinley, Alexander (2018). Mountain at a Center of the World. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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