Reading the suttas is always interesting, in as much as they show how little we humans have changed in some ways over the centuries, how little of what we do is actually new. Recently I was reading the Chaddanta Jataka (Ja.V,45-7). This charming story is interesting in itself but of extra interest is its detailed description of a mountain-climbing expedition. Mountain climbing is little more than two centuries old while rock-climbing has only become a recognized sport/activity in the last few decades. Reading the Chaddanta Jataka shows that people were doing both, although not as a recreation, as far back as the 5th or 3rd century BCE. Very briefly, the Chaddanta Jataka tells of a man who undertakes to go to a remote mountain wilderness to kill a miraculous elephant and bring back its tusks for a queen. Knowing that he will have to ascend extremely difficult mountains he prepares himself well. A list of the equipment he takes includes a knife (vasi), hatchet (pharasu), spade (kuddala), a sharp instrument for cutting bamboo (nikhadanamutthika velu), grass-cutter (gumbaccheda), metal rod (lohadanda), iron grappling hooks (ayasinghataka), pegs or bolts (khanu), hammer (muggara), leather ropes (cammayotta), webbing (varatta), elephant boots (hatthiupahana) and most interestingly, a leather parachute or glider (cammachatta). He also took his own firewood and barley meal, perhaps a type of energy food. Everything was carried in a leather (waterproof ?) pack (cammabhasta). The first part of his journey is taken by chariot, then his porters help carry his gear until he gets the uninhabited forest after which he proceeded alone. The text describes how he cuts his way through a thick forest, improvises a raft out of a log and a ladder (nisseni) out of bamboo to cross difficult terrain until he reaches the foot of the mountain. Then tying the rope to the grappling hook he threw it onto the rock, secured it and began his assent. Using the diamond-tipped iron rod he drilled holes in the rock, hammered pegs into them and climbed up on them. On reaching the first peak he let himself down the other side with the rope, ‘like a spider letting out its web’ (makkata sutta vissajjana karena). Getting to a cliff or gorge he waited for ‘a gust of wind and then taking his parachute (or glider) he glided down like a bird’ (vatan gahapetva sakuno viya otaratiti). In this way he climbed over six mountain ranges until he got to where the elephant was. One can only assume that these details, so precise and realistic, are based on actual mountain climbing expeditions that really took place. Perhaps they reflect early attempts by Indians to penetrate into the Himalayas and eventually beyond them to the Tibetan Plateau.
One final thing. In the National Museum in New Delhi there is a fragment of the railing from the great Buddhist stupa at Bharhut dating from about the 2nd century BCE. On it is a depiction of two men climbing a rock face by grasping and standing on pegs protruding from the rock. The railing of the Bharhut stupa illustrates numerous Jataka stories but I have long pondered over which one this scene is ment to be. The caption below the railing says it shows honey gatherers, which is quite plausible. Indian villagers and forest-dwellers do gather wild honey still in a way not unlike the scene on the railing (See Eric Valli’s Honey Gathers in Nepal). The problem is that there is no Jataka story which includes an episode of honey gathering. So I am inclined to think it is meant to illustrate the mountain climbing episode from the Chaddanta Jataka. There are problems with this identification. The Jataka tells of one mountaineer but here there are two, and his pack was made of leather while here the packs look more like cane. Nonetheless, if the two men are not gathering honey what are they doing? Any comments, including from mountain climbers or rock climbers would be welcome.