Exposing an exposition

From Pelmadulla Rajamaha Viharaya to Kobe, Japan the Sunday Times Insight Team probes the saga behind bogus Buddha relics
Insight Team: Damith Wickremasekera, Pradeep Karunatilleke, Bigun Gamage andShane Seneviratne in Kandy. Photographer Sanka Vidanagama

Kobe, Japan’s sixth largest city was the venue for a six-day event titled “Exposition of Sacred Relics of Lord Buddha.”

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Ports Minister Chamal Rajapaksa were the special invitees from Sri Lanka, along with the Minister of Religious Affairs Pubudu Bandaranayake. It was indeed, a high powered delegation which gave the flavour of it being an event that had the blessings of the Government of Sri Lanka at the very highest levels.

The question that has arisen is whether these were genuine relics of Lord Buddha that were taken from Sri Lanka, whether such a high powered delegation was the unwitting accomplices to a major scam involving Lord Buddha’s reverence, the misleading of the Japanese people, and what the quid-pro-quo was for the ‘deal’.

The sponsor of the event was Dr. Kyuse Enshijoh, founder priest of Japan’s Netbutshushu Buddhist Sect and some members of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka. The venue was the sprawling Royal Grand Hall of Buddhism set in 148 hectares of land once known as Mamushi-dani (Valley of Vipers).

The double page advertisement in the Yomiuri Shimbun paper regarding the exposition. The red circled areas refer to the Buddha relics from Sri Lanka

According to Shinju Miyagawa, high priest of the sect, official records say, Dr. Enshijoh had a dream one night. He relates what followed: “He dreamt of slithering vipers all over the ground at the first light of dawn. The king snake, all coiled up, suddenly raised its head and bowed. It spoke to him: We welcome you. For a very long time we’ve waited for this day to come. To you, we’re willing to transfer this land that we’ve protected with our lives. Please use this land. We give our word to protect it at all times. Then the army of vipers faded away.”

Dr. Enshijoh was alone in the vast land, surrounded by lush greenery and bright lights. He claims that the Grand Hall of Buddhism is the largest Buddhist temple edifice in the world. Reports claim they are going for record-breaking feats. The pair of huge stone lanterns (12 metres high) in front of the main hall has already found its way into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest stone lanterns.

Perhaps Dr. Enshijoh wanted to create another world record when he called upon Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Japan, Jayantha Palipane, to sign a message that was to appear as an advertising supplement in Japan’s leading newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun to co-incide with the exposition.

One of the paragraphs had referred to the Kobe temple as the “spiritual centre of the 370 million Buddhists worldwide.” Mr Palipane knew there were places of far greater significance for Buddhists like Buddha Gaya, the Dalada Maligawa, Sri Maha Bodhi than this temple in Kobe. For his refusal and for his not being present when Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickemanayake, arrived at the Narita International Airport in Tokyo, he has been re-called to Colombo.

The sprawling Royal Grand Hall
The Pelmadulla Rajamaha Viharaya

This is not withstanding the fact that none other than the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rohitha Bogollagama, personally authorised his leave. With official approval, the Sri Lankan envoy had travelled to London. The minister had granted leave on the basis that there had been no request from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) requesting that the ambassador be present at the airport nor was his presence required for what was essentially a ‘private visit’ by the Premier.

Prime Minister Wickramanayake’s itinerary in Tokyo was in the hands of a Sri Lankan travel agent who runs Lion Royal Travels Ltd., The only request made by the PMO to the Foreign Ministry was from Additional Secretary S.S. Miyanwela to the Chief of Protocol at the Foreign Ministry – not even to the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, to arrange the VIP Lounge at the Colombo airport and to detail a “protocol officer” to attend to formalities in Singapore and Japan. The Prime Minister was to be in Japan for 10 days and the Foreign Ministry in Colombo was not informed – nor did they ask – what he was going to be doing there. Simply put it was a private trip, and therefore none of their business to intrude into his privacy.

This week, the Charge d’ Affairs at the Sri Lanka Embassy, Ms Chamari Rodrigo, has also been re-called to Colombo for the same reasons that her ambassador had been recalled.

Ports and Aviation Minister, Chamal Rajapaksa attended the exposition, from September 5 to 10. He went as special envoy of the Sri Lanka President leading a 20-member delegation. He was joined by Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake who arrived a day after.

The event was at the hall that is 51.5 metres high (equivalent to an 18 storey building) and claimed to be the tallest temple in Japan.

The exposition is over, but the Sunday Times Insight team found that a controversy has erupted over claims by sponsors of the Kobe event, both Japanese and Sri Lankan clergy, that Lord Buddha’s Relics came from the Pelmadulla Raja Maha Vihare. In the newspaper supplement published in the Yomiuri Shinbun on 31 August by the Kobe organisers, the Sri Lanka flag is reproduced with the Sri Lankan Republican insignia which is used only by the Sri Lankan State. This is to clearly indicate that the Kobe event has the patronage of the Sri Lankan State. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa confirms these to be ‘Buddha relics’.

The message is in the Japanese language. The Maha Nayake of Asgiriya has given a statement. The incumbent Diyawada Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Tooth) that houses genuine Buddha relics, Neelanga Dela Bandara goes one step further in saying in his message that these are not only Buddha relics from the Pelmadulla Raja Maha Vihara, but that they have been separated from the Temple for the first time in over 200 years. Mr. Dela Bandara by a happy co-incidence is a resident of the Ratnapura District and has close connections with the Pelmadulla Raja Maha Vihara.

There are no official records to confirm such relics existed in this Vihare, one of 22 Raja Maha Vihares in the Ratnapura District. Neither can the Chief Incumbent of the Vihara, Ven. Bengamuwe Siri Dhammadinna Thera throw any authenticity to his claim that these are indeed Buddha relics. He merely says that these relics have come down the ages from the days of King Rajasinghe, and that his predecessor had said they were Buddha relics. His is not to question why. Pressed by us to give the history of these specific relics sent to Japan as a donation, Ven. Siri Dhammadinna Thera refused to elaborate.

The Chief Incumbent of another temple in Pelmadulla, the Ganegama Raja Maha Vihare, Ven. Patakada Wimalaratana Thera disagrees with Ven. Dhammadinna’s statement. He told us “There are relics in these temples. We have no confirmation that they are Buddha relics (Sarvajanna Dhatu). Even my predecessor did not have details. Without proper research, one cannot establish (the fact). I have been ordained for 50 years and never heard of Buddha relics in this area”.

“There is no historical document that there are Buddha relics in the Ratnapura district,” he emphasised. It is only a traditional belief that Raja Maha Viharayas have Buddha relics. But no one has confirmation that they are Buddha relics. We have heard that in places like Anuradhapura fake Buddha relics are being moulded and sold. There is also the question that if Buddha relics are being taken out of the country, how was it done without the approval of the Department of Archaeology?.” he asked.

The Maha Nayake of the Malwatta Chapter, Ven. Thibattuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera was also sceptical about the Buddha relics being genuine. “It is only a belief that there are Buddha relics in Pelmadulla. We have not had any confirmation,” he told us. He said, “According to the laws of the country any item which has an ancient value or an archaeological value cannot be donated to a foreign country. The laws should be followed.”

The Ven. Maha Nayake said under the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance which govern temples, there is a caretaker appointed every five years. He would have a list of all the ancient items which belongs to the temple. “When the caretaker changes, the next person takes over (the inventory). But they have no right to make a donation to a foreign country. This has to be done according to the law, the Malwatte prelate told us. He added, “It is probable that the Prime Minister and Minister Chamal Rajapaksa were brought into the picture to indicate that the function had state sponsorship.”

“There is no historic evidence of Lord Buddha’s relics in any Vihare in the Ratnapura district,” Commissioner of Archaeology Dr. Senarath Dissanayake told us. He said, “It is clear such relics are deposited at the Dalada Maligawa, Ruvanveliseya, Mahiyangana and such places.” (See box story for his comments). Mr. Dissanayake said the permission of his Department is required to take out items of archaeological value from the country.

However, the Chief Incumbent of the Pelmadulla Raja Maha Vihare – the temple from which the Kobe organisers said they had obtained the holy relics of the Buddha, who is also Chief Sangha Nayake of the Ratnapura Maha Disawa, disagreed. He told us, “This temple has an ancient history. It goes back to the Anuradhapura era.” He insisted this was not the first time relics had been taken from his temple, and that he needed no one’s permission to do so. He said he was against the provisions of the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance that required an inventory to be taken by a caretaker and admitted that his Vihara had none.

(See his answers to questions posed by the Insight team in box story). So, with the Chief Incumbent unable to confirm the authenticity of the relics that he has donated to Japan, we set about asking the Chief Dayaka of the same Vihara, Sunil Shantha Weerasekera, (lay person heading a group that runs the affairs of the temple), who is also Basnayake Nilame of Saman Devale. He told us he had not been informed about the movement of any relics from Pelmadulla Raja Maha Vihare. “I am only aware that a Japanse delegation including a venerable monk who is advising a VIP visited the temple. I cannot speak about details without asking the Chief Incumbent.”

He said there was Japanese assistance in the pipe-line to set up nine Dagobas in the nine provinces. It was this statement that made the picture clearer. These Netbutshushu Buddhist Sect people are the financiers of the nine Dagobas in the nine provinces that the Government announced would be built shortly.

Already, the plans for the new Dagoba in the Sabaragamuwa Province opposite the historic Saman Devale have been approved by the Government.

The Customs told us that no declaration was made to them that Buddha relics were being taken away from Sri Lanka.

We can donate whatever we have

Ven. Bengamuwe Siri Dhammadinna, Chief Sanganayaka of the Ratnapura Maha Disawa and Chief incumbent of the Pelmadulla Rajamaha Viharaya and Pothgul Rajamaha Viharaya
defended his action in presenting to a new Buddhist Sect in Japan what he termed were relics of Lord Buddha.

His comments:

“This temple has an ancient history. Its history goes back to the Anuradhapura era. This is a Raja Maha Viharaya and there should be valuable items here. This is not the first time that Buddha relics have been taken from this temple. Even earlier, we sent relics to Malaysia and Singapore. There have been about 26 Buddha relics at this temple. Only a few temples have Buddha relics, others have relics of Rahathan Wahanses. The Archaeology Department or any other department does not have ownership over Buddha relics.

Ven. Bengamuwe Siri Dhammadinna

“It is definitely Buddha relics. We are not in the habit of selling Buddha relics. We donated the Buddha relics which were in our possession. We did not want to fool anyone by donating anything else. Therefore, we donated the Buddha relics we had.

“We can donate whatever we have. Only we can respond to the question whether it was Buddha relics that were donated to Japan.

“You do not need the approval of the Buddha Sasana Ministry or the Department of Archaeology to put up a temple. If there are any items in the temple it could be donated depending on the wish of the Chief Incumbent. The Department could intervene only if it is registered under them, not otherwise. Only the pillars and buildings come under their purview. They have no right to intervene in matters which do not come under their purview. Buddha relics do not belong to the Department.

All these issues come up when a country is trying to donate money. Various issues are being raised. I have donated 34 Chuda Manikkiyas to temples in the country and that was not for money. Some of them have also been donated to Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan.

There is no truth that the Buddha relics we donated were rejected. There were about 2000 monks and 5000 people for the Kobe event.

The event took place with the knowledge of the President.

No historical evidence regarding authenticity

Dr. Senarath Dissanayake, Director General of Archaeology responded to questions posed to him:

Q: What is the legal procedure when an ancient artefact with an archaeological value is donated or loaned to a foreign country?

There is no problem when it is moved from one place to another within the country, but when it is taken out of the country permission should be obtained form the Director General of Archaeology. But generally such permission is not granted. The DG can refuse permission on the grounds that it is a valuable property. The archaeological department does not allow any ancient artefacts to be taken out of the country. Even a religious artefact is considered an archaeological relic.

Q; There are temples that do not come under the purview of the Archaeological department. Can an ancient artefact belonging to one of these temples be taken out of the country without permission?

Even if the object is a private property and or belongs to a temple which does not come under the purview of the archaeological department if it is an ancient artefact permission has to be obtained. To what or where it belongs is immaterial.

Q: It has been reported that a Buddha relic has been gifted to a Japanese temple. Have they obtained permission for this from the dept of archaeology?

That question can be answered only after an inspection by the department. It has to be ascertained as to how old the relic is.

Q: It is chronicled that during the Anuradhapura period 14 relics were brought to Lanka. Have their definite locations been identified.

It is clear that such relics are deposited at the Dalada Maligawa, Ruwanweliseya, Mahiyangana and such places. But the certainty of it can only be ascertained after investigations.

Q: Is there any historic evidence of any such relic either in a vihare in Ratnapura district or elsewhere?

There is no such reference, if it is reported only that they exist somewhere that we can as a department intervene and investigate. It is huge task and not that simple as to give a verdict merely by seeing them.

Q: Can the viharadhipathis on their own decide to utilize any object of archaeological value without reference to the department of archaeology?

There is no objection going by the existing rules of our country, but, they cannot be sent out of the country.

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