1st February 1998


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Why it matters so
Why it matters so


Why it matters so

Last Sunday's attack on the sacred Buddhist shrine, the Dalada Maligawa, has struck the heart of the nation. Madubhashini Ratnayake, traces the history of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the beliefs surrounding it, its impact on local culture, rituals and politics.

Dalada MaligawaWhat was it that sent shockwaves more powerful than any bomb could have made across the country last Sunday, when it was known that terrorists had exploded a bomb at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy? Perhaps it was the knowledge that what was hit was the heart of the Sinhala Buddhist identity and pride, for the Tooth Relic of the Buddha is perhaps the most valuable possession we have in this country. Even for a non-Sinhala, non-Buddhist, the act could not have been without horror, for an object such as this is the heritage of all humanity.

What is the Tooth Relic? Technically, it is the left canine tooth of the Buddha, taken from his pyre after the parinibbana or the Passing Away. But it is also much more for us. It is the symbol of the Buddha himself.

Relics can be of three categories: the corporeal objects (saririka dhatu), the utilitarian objects (pariboghika dhatu) and commemorative objects (uddesika dhatu). Of these three, the saririka dhatu are the most venerated, their worship being considered equal to the worship of Lord Buddha.

Our country has the fortune of being in possession of both the saririka and the paribogika dhatu in the form of the Tooth Relic and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura respectively, both held in utmost respect by Buddhists all over the world. Sri Lanka also has the misfortune of failing to protect both these places from terrorist attacks, for both were targets and both were saved only by some power that is not connected to us.

Both relics were brought to this country in the Anuradhapura Era, the Bo Sapling coming first, during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (247 - 207 BC), the first Buddhist King in the island. It is believed that the Tooth Relic was brought to Anuradhapura during the reign of Sri Meghavanna (301 - 328 AD), by Princess Hemamala and Prince Dhanta from Kalinga, in India. It is said that the Princess hid the Relic in her long tresses, to safeguard it from being stolen during the long journey.

They arrived in the island, and were, at first, dismayed on hearing the news that the King to whom they expected to deliver the sacred object, King Mahasena, was dead. However, they took heart again when they heard that the new King, his son, Siri Meghavanna, was also devoted to Buddhism. On hearing the news of the arrival of the Sacred Tooth Relic, it is said that the King was so overjoyed that he gave the entire kingdom of Lanka to the Relic in offering. At first enshrined in a vihara, it was soon to be housed very close to the palace, because very soon, it was apparent that the King and the Tooth Relic necessarily had to have a close connection, in the eyes of the Sinhala people, if the King was to be considered the supreme ruler of the country.

Since the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC, the ruler of the country was also considered the protector of religion, and therefore was connected with the propagation of the religion and the veneration of Buddhist objects found in the country. While the relics were given protection by the king, the king was in turn given a certain sanctity by being associated with the relics, even up to the point of being considered a Bodhisatva, or a future Buddha.

In the Anuradhapura Era, there were two such sacred objects to which the King was connected, the Sri Maha Bodhiya and the Dalada Vahanse. However, with the shifting of the capital to Polonnaruwa in the 11th century, the political significance of the Tooth Relic increased, as it was the only Relic which could be moved with the Kingdom. The possession of the Tooth Relic became associated with sovereignty, and this connection persisted very strongly right upto the fall of the last Kingdom at Kandy, often to the surprise of the foreign conquerors.

Dharmaratne Herath, in his book The Tooth Relic and the Crown, notes that " At the end of the rebellion of 1818 when the Sinhalese showed their first resentment to the British rule, the Tooth Relic which has been in the possession of the rebels was captured by the British and was brought to be enshrined again in the Relic Temple at Kandy." Davy remarks the effects of the capture of the relic on the inhabitants of the island in the following words.

"Now, (the people said) the English are indeed masters of the country; for they who possess the relic have a right to govern the four kingdoms: this, for 2000 years , is the first time the Relic was ever taken from us. And the first Adhikar (Prime Minister) observed that "whatever the English might think of the consequences of having taken Kappetipola, Pilime Talawe and Madugalle, in his opinion, and in the opinion of the people in general, the taking of the Relic was of infinitely more importance."

This account it would seem underlies two important factors. One is that the capture of the Relic placed the English on a firm footing to rule the country. The other is that the loss of the Relic was instrumental in the failure of the rebellion. These factors indicate the political significance of the Tooth Relic which is evident even at the present time when it plays no active role in politics. This is not a later development but a continuation of the system which prevailed in earlier times.

To all the kingdoms since Polonnaruwa the Tooth Relic was taken by the king who was reigning at the time. It was finally brought to Kandy, the last Kingdom of Sri Lanka in the 16th century by Vimaladharmasuriya I, who founded the new Kingdom. Where ever it was taken, a temple of great beauty was built by the kings to enshrine it, and Buddhist monks were given the task of protecting and venerating it.

Veneration takes the form of various ceremonies and rituals associated with the Temple of the Tooth and the Sacred Tooth Relic. These rituals have persisted from the earliest times, and what is done now at the Dalada Maligawa is a tradition of several centuries with remarkably little change. Anuradha Seneviratne, in his book Buddhist Rituals and Ceremonies, notes that "The Chinese Buddhist Traveller, Fa Hsien, who visited Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 5th Century..., & .gives a vivid account of this annual festival as he saw it in Anuradhapura. Fa Hsien makes an interesting statement in his description of the rites held in honour of the Sacred Dalada when he notes that the kingdom suffered neither from famine, calamity nor revolution because of the regular performances of these ceremonies."

The belief that the Tooth Relic protects the land, gives rain in time, and acts as the guardian of the Sinhala people persists to this day. Each July, the Esala Perahera takes to the streets in Kandy, creating one of the most spectacular pageants of the world, because it is believed that, that is what will cause the rains to come in time the following year. The Tooth Relic is given the power of producing rain, according to the belief of the Sinhalese, and perhaps this is why it was important for the king to be the guardian of the Tooth Relic, since, for an agrarian people, it was he who could give rains in time.

Apart from performing the daily rituals, the monks were also given the task of protecting the Sacred Tooth Relic. Protection was often necessary when there was unrest in the ancient kingdoms, when the enemy knew that the most powerful treasure to capture would be the Sacred Tooth Relic. There is one instance of it being captured and being taken off to India, but with the intervention of the King of this country, it was brought back unharmed.

Often Buddhist monks endangered their lives to remove the Relic in secret, to keep it in hiding till it could be brought back to the temple. There is one mention of the Temple of the Tooth Relic being repaired by Mahinda lV in the Anuradhapura period, when it was burnt by Chola invaders. But at no point was the Tooth Relic harmed, since the vigilance of the protectors managed to have it out of the way of danger.

And unbelievably, it is in now, in this day and age, that the Sacred Tooth Relic has faced perhaps the greatest threat, when a high powered bomb was exploded just a few feet away from it.

How had the centuries old tradition of utmost protection failed now?

Though miraculously the Sacred Tooth Relic is unharmed, the Temple has suffered extensive damage. The temple is believed to have been first built by Vimaladharmasuriya I, and of that first building, Anuradha Seneviratne says, "To venerate the Tooth Relic daily, and to sponsor the rituals required, the new temple built was a superb two storeyed building erected on an exquisite piece of land neighbouring the Royal Place.

"Many other kings have added to it with love and devotion, creating an elegant monument the whole country had been proud of.

And now it is harmed, for the sake of things which are way beneath it. Something should be above the long arm of politics. Even in a war, there are some things that should be left alone. When we lose them, we lose ourselves.

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