THE TOOTH RELIC OF SRI LANKA
Posted on April 29th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

There are three categories of objects which are venerated by Buddhists, said historian Lorna Dewaraja. Firstly, the charred bodily remains of the Buddha which were collected and distributed after his cremation.   Secondly, objects which came in touch with the Buddha in his life time, such as the Alms Bowl and the Bodhi tree.  The third category is Buddha images.

The most important items in the first category are the Tooth Relic and the Collar Bone, both of which are enshrined in Sri Lanka. The history of the Tooth Relic is known. The ‘Dathavamsa’ says that when the remains of the Buddha were divided, after the cremation, among rival claimants,   the left Eye Tooth came to an Elder named Khema who took it to Dantapura in Kalinga where it was accorded the highest honour by the rulers of Kalinga. Kalinga is present-day northern Telangana, northeastern Andhra Pradesh, most of Odisha, and a portion of Madhya Pradesh .

For eight centuries the Tooth Relic remained undisturbed in Dantapura.  In the 4 century AD the ruler of Dantapura, Guhasiva, who was a convert from Brahmanism to Buddhism, paid homage to the Tooth Relic. This angered the Brahmin priests who complained to their king, Pandu at Pataliputra who ordered that the Tooth Relic be brought to the capital.   The Tooth Relic came, but Pandu converted to Buddhism and the Tooth Relic was safe .Then Pandu was defeated in a battle with the king of Savaththi, who demanded the Tooth Relic. However, according to Dathavamsa, the Tooth Relic went back to Guhasiva.

Thereafter, the son of the king of Ujjain, who was an ardent Buddhist, came on a pilgrimage to Dantapura      bringing offerings to the Tooth Relic. Guhasiva gave his daughter Hemamali to him in marriage and appointed him ‘Dantarakkkhadhikari’ or custodian of the Tooth Relic.

Savaththi again sent a large army demanding the Tooth Relic. Guhasiva entrusted the Tooth Relic to his son- in- law and daughter and told them that if he lost the battle with Savaththi, to take the Tooth Relic to his friend, Mahasena, king of Sri Lanka, who had shown a great desire to possess it.

Guhasiva must have lost the battle and probably his life, said Dewaraja, for Danta and Hemamali brought the Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka.  They had travelled disguised as beggars and after many adventures had arrived at the port of Lankapattana situated in the Jaffna peninsula. They travelled to Anuradhapura and offered the Tooth Relic to the king.  By this time, King Mahasena had died and his son, Kirti Sri Meghavanna (301-308 AD), was king.  He was a contemporary of Emperor Samudragupta in India.

Culavamsa only gives one sentence to this event, observed Dewaraja.  Culavamsa simply says the Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka during the time of King Kirti Sri Meghavanna. But there are other     writings which commemorate the event, particularly the ‘Dathavamsa’. The Dathavamsa was written in the 13 century, but it was based on an earlier work, ‘Daladavamsa’   which   was composed during the reign of Kirti Sri Meghavanna, at the express command of the king.

  Dewaraja says information in Dathavamsa can be taken as authentic.  The information agrees with conditions in India at the time. In India the Gupta period saw a powerful Brahmanic revival .But there were flourishing Buddhist centers too, and these had close religious ties with Sri Lanka. That is why Guhasiva wanted the Tooth Relic sent to Sri Lanka for safety.

Kirti Sri Meghavanna showed great reverence to the Tooth Relic. He placed it in an urn of pure crystal and deposited it in the Dhammachakka building, constructed by King Devanampiya Tissa on the palace premises. This building was then called the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Kirti Sri Meghavanna  held a  great festival for the Tooth Relic, for which he spent 900,000 kahapana. Dewaraja says the Tooth Relic went to Abhayagiri and not  Maha vihara, because Kirti Sri’s  father supported Abhayagiri and not Maha vihara. The son,  perhaps out of loyalty, did the same.

Kirti Sri Meghavanna  ordered that the Tooth Relic must be brought every year to Abhayuttara vihara (Abhayagiri vihara) and the festival be held there. The annual Tooth Relic perahera associated with Abhayagiri vihara continued throughout the Anuradhapura period, said Dewaraja. It was a spectacular event. Fa Hien who was in Anuradhapura in 410 AD has   left an account of the Tooth Relic perahera in Anuradhapura.

 Fa Hien said there were many noblemen and rich householders living in the city. The houses of the merchants are beautifully adorned. The streets and passages are all smooth and level. There are fifty or sixty thousand priests in the country.  At the head of the four principal streets there are Preaching halls. On the 8, 14 and 15 days of the month they hold bana preachings.

They always bring out the Tooth Relic in the middle of the third month, continued Fa Hien.  Ten days before hand, the king magnificently caparisons a great elephant, and commissions a man of great eloquence, dressed in royal apparel and riding on the elephant to sound a drum and proclaim a statement about the greatness of the Buddha.

‘After ten days the Tooth Relic will be brought forth and taken to Abhayagiri vihara,’ the announcer said.  ‘let all ecclesiastical and lay persons within the kingdom who wish to lay up a store of merit , prepare and smooth the roads, adorn the streets and high ways,  let them scatter every kind of flower and offer incense in religious reverence to the Relic.”

Dewaraja summarizes the above account. The King commissions an officer riding a gaily caparisoned elephant to announce the fact that the Tooth Relic will be brought from the city to the Abhayagiri vihara and kept for ninety days for the public to worship.

Fa Hien,   continued his description, saying, the king next causes to be placed on both sides of the road representations of the     500 bodily forms which the Buddha assume during his births, such as elephant and antelope. These figures are all beautifully painted in diverse colors and have a very life like appearance.   Then the Tooth Relic is brought forth and conducted along the principal road. As they proceed religious offerings are made to it.

 When the Tooth Relic arrives at Abhayagiri vihara, they place it in the Hall of   Buddha, where the clergy and laity all assemble in vast crowd and burn incense,   light lamps and perform many religious ceremonies both night and day without ceasing. After ninety days they again return it to the Vihara. This vihara is thrown open on the chief holidays for the purpose of religious worship,” concluded Fa Hien.  

Dewaraja observes that this shows that Kirti Sri Megavanna’s order was followed even hundred years later. Fa Hien said the Tooth Relic was taken out in the middle of the third month, this will be Esala added Dewaraja.

 The Tooth Relic continued under the protection of the king. In AD 428 king Mahanama had sent a letter to the Sung Emperor in China together with a model of the Tooth Relic as a sign of friendship.

King Dhatusena (455-473) showed great devotion to the Tooth Relic. He repaired the temple and   had a casket made for the Tooth Relic with a ‘halo’ made of closely fitting mosaic thickly set with precious stones. Aggabodhi I (571-604) decorated the temple and built a golden reliquary with brightly gleaming precious stones. Sena II (853-887) held a glittering festival of the Tooth Relic.

Dewaraja points out that  in this time, several persons, kings and nobles have  the Pali word Datha’ or the Sinhala word ‘Dala’ which  mean ‘tooth’, attached to their names, such as Dhatusena,  Dathapabhuti ( 531AD) Dala Mugalan ( 531-551) Dathopa Tissa ( 639-650) Hattadatha (659-667).

The Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang   who came to  the island in  629 AD reported  , that beside the  king’s palace was the Temple of the Tooth, which was  decorated with all kinds of gems which dazzled like the sun and above the  temple at considerable height  was fixed a great ruby that shone with brilliant light,

Dewaraja observed that in Anuradhapura the Tooth Relic had to compete with other shrines such as the Sri Maha Bodhi and the Maha thupa.  When the capital shifted to Polonnaruwa only the Tooth Relic could be taken there. The Tooth Relic became the sole object of worship In Polonnaruwa and this continued in all the other capitals to which the Sinahla monarchy moved after that.

Dewaraja also observed that by about the 12th century, the Dalada came to be regarded as the symbol of royalty and its custodian was destined to wear the crown. So deep rooted was this belief in the minds of the public that in 1818 the capture of the Tooth Relic by the British, quite by accident, marked the end of the rebellion.

The Polonnaruwa kingdom   faced an invasion of the Tamil  Cholas, who ruled there for   seventy years. When the Cholas invaded    Sri Lanka, the bhikkhus took the Tooth Relic and fled to Ruhuna in the south. The Tooth Relic returned to Polonnaruwa when Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) chased away the Cholas and started to rule from Polonnaruwa.

 Vijayabahu built a beautiful costly temple for the Tooth Relic and   instituted a permanent great festival for the Tooth Relic.  Vijayabahu also obtained a fresh upasampada from Burma as the Sangha had declined in his kingdom. In return King Anaurata asked for the Tooth Relic. Vijayabahu sent a replica.

According to the Culavamsa, Vijayabahu’s son Vikramabahu plundered the treasures offered to the Tooth Relic by devotees. The bhikkhus, thoroughly alarmed, once again  hid the Tooth and Bowl relics, taking them from place to place to ensure their safety. The Tooth Relic ended up at Udundora and its custody passed into the hands of the princes of Ruhuna.

Parakrama bahu I (1153-1186) found that his rule was challenged because he did not possess the Tooth Relic when he took power. The Tooth Relic was still in Ruhuna in the care of Queen Sugala. In 1157 Parakrama bahu waged war against Ruhuna to get the Tooth Relic and the Bowl relic back. Ruhuna had planned to send the two relics abroad. Parakrama bahu gave express orders to his generals to capture the relics.  After a fierce battle led by Commander in chief Rakkha, the Ruhuna group were defeated. The army took possession of the two relics at Uruvela, southeast of modern Moneragala. They were sent to Polonnaruwa under strict security.

Culavamsa said that Parakrama bahu shedding tears of joy and with his hair standing on end walked eight miles to the river to take charge of the relics. He held a grand festival then and there. He left the relic heavily guarded, and returned to the capital. He ordered a temporary pavilion for the exhibition of the Tooth Relic and a splendid edifice as a permanent home for the Tooth Relic.  The Tooth Relic was placed in a casket studded with costly gems. The casket was then placed inside a gold box.

Parakrama Bahu I held a festival for the Tooth Relic. .Culavamsa describes this festival. The king riding his favorite elephant  accompanied by his courtiers on horseback, and hundreds of dancing girls and musicians, and surrounded by his people, carried the relics amidst the trumpeting of elephants, the neighing of horses, the clatter of chariot wheels, the rattle of drums and the cries of victory of the bards.’ Dewaraja notes that the king’s procession as described in the Culavamsa has a martial note to it. It includes all four components of war fare, elephants, cavalry, charioteers and infantry.

Culavamsa says torrential rains fell at that time, though it was not the monsoon season. Dewaraja observed, this is one of the reasons the Tooth Relic is of such importance to the king. As custodian of the Tooth Relic he could play the role of rain maker which is vitally important in an agricultural society. Even today, she says,   it is believed that rain will fall when the relic is taken in procession.

Nissanka Malla (1186-1197) also looked after the Tooth Relic. He built for it the temple known today as Hatadage. He made several offering to the Tooth Relic, including his own son and daughter whom he then redeemed by paying the price of a golden Dagoba to the relic. Dewaraja observed that this custom is followed today.  Parents place their new born children before the Relic chamber in the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy and then buy them back by paying whatever they can.

 King Kalinga  Vijayabahu, known as  Magha, ruled from 1215 to 1236. He was against Buddhism and destroyed Buddhist monuments. Therefore, the Sangha, headed by Ven. Vacissara took the Tooth Relic to Malaya rata and buried it in a mountain for safety, reported Culavamsa. In the latter part of Magha’s rule, Vijaya bahu III (1232-36)  was also ruling at Dambadeniya.

  His son, Parakrama bahu II (1236-1270)  rescued the Tooth Relic and took it to  Dambadeniya,. He   held a grand festival and built an edifice for it near the Palace.  He is said to have offered his 64 ornaments including his diadem and bracelet to the Tooth Relic. He wanted his son to take the Tooth Relic back to Polonnaruwa. But his son Vijayabahu IV took it to Yapahuwa, which he made his capital.

Chandrabanu of Ligor invaded Sri Lanka at this time to obtain relics, presumably the Tooth Relic.  Ligor was another name for Nakon si Thammarat, in present day Thailand. In the Vat Hva Vian inscriptions datable to 1230 .Chandrabanu is identified at king Siridhamma of Dhammarajanagara. Dhammaraja nagara has been identified as Nakhorn si Thamarat, and the ruler has been identified as the Chandrabanu who invaded Sri Lanka.   Chandrabanu  invaded twice and the second time he is said to have lost his life, according to Culavamsa.

There was a Pandya outpost in Jaffna during this time headed by Ariyachakravarti. Ariyachakravarti successfully invaded Yapahuwa, in the time of king Buvaneka bahu 1 (1272-84), captured the Tooth Relic and sent it to the Pandya king Kulasekhera who was ruling in Madura in present day Tamilnadu.

Parakrama bahu III (1287-93), who succeeded his father, Buvaneka bahu 1, went to Madura, spoke to Kulasekera and brought back the Tooth Relic. This diplomatic achievement has not received the applause it deserved. Parakrama bahu took the Tooth Relic to Polonnaruwa as his father had wanted.

In the meantime, the reputation of the Tooth Relic had spread across Asia and Chinese emperor Kublai Khan sent an embassy to the Sinhala king asking for the Tooth Relic and Bowl relic. At that time the two relics had gone to Madura. Kublai Khan then sent an embassy to Madura, but by then, the relic had come back to Sri Lanka.

The next king Buvaneka bahu II (1293-1302), established his capital at Kurunegala and took the Tooth Relic there. Parakrama bahu IV (1302-1326) known as Pandita Parakrama bahu also ruled from Kurunegala.  “Dalada sirita” was written by Devrad in 1326 during the reign of this king. Dalada Sirita” said that festivals of the Tooth Relic should be held to obtain rain.

Dalada sirita” described the ritual connected with the Tooth Relic and also how the king should behave towards it. When the king enters the Temple of the Tooth he should leave his retinue outside, clean the room and reverently pay homage to it, said Dalada Sirita.

Dalada sirita” also said that when a king went to reside in a new palace the Tooth Relic  should be brought accompanied by  the Sangha, reciting pirit and sprinkling  sacred water. The temple was to function as a sanctuary and those who entered it enjoyed immunity. Any money taken from the temple,   due to economic difficulties, should be returned with interest within six months.

According to “Dalada sirita” every year the Tooth Relic was taken in procession around the capital and exhibited to the public. For seven days preceding the date fixed for the procession, special offerings were made to the Tooth Relic, with the king, the high dignitaries of the state and the public taking part.

After morning service on the 7th day the relic was taken out and paraded along the streets of the city. The casket containing the Tooth Relic was taken out in the presence of the head of the Uturumula   sect of the Abhayagiri vihara.

The casket was then placed on an ornamental chariot which was yoked to a gaily decorated elephant. Sacred water was sprinkled on the streets. In front of the chariot walked members of the Sangha, each one holding a string of protection, tied to the chariot, chanting pirit. Officials attached to the temple of the Tooth, palace officials and detachments from the army followed. After this the casket was opened and the relic exhibited to the public.

The next king, Buvanekabahu IV (1341-51) moved his capital to Gampola and the Tooth Relic went to Gampola. The only information available for this period is that the Tooth Relic was housed in the Niyamgampaya Maha vihara.

The capital then shifted to Kotte. Parakrama bahu VI (1412-1467) set up his capital there. The literature of  the time say that he built a splendid three storey mansion to house the Tooth Relic near his palace.

The Chinese emperor Yung Lo (1402 – 1424) asked   Cheng Ho, the admiral of the  Chinese fleet, to try and get the Tooth Relic from Sri Lanka, when his ship docked there. There was a clash between Cheng Ho and the chief officer of the king, Vira Alakesvara, during Cheng Ho’s  two visits to Sri Lanka ,  the last of which was in 1412.  Cheng Ho was unable to get the Tooth Relic. The Tooth Relic never went to China. It stayed in Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1509 and eventually took control of Kotte ruling it through king Dharmapala. The Portuguese were hostile to Buddhism. They had come to spread their    religion, Christianity (Roman Catholic) to Sri Lanka. Due to this, the Sangha fled from Kotte, taking with them the Tooth Relic which they hid in a grinding stone in the Delgamu vihara in Sabaragamuwa.  Records indicate that during this time, King Bayinnang ( 1551-1581) of Myanmar sent offerings to the Tooth Relic , and showed great concern for its safety.

When the Portuguese  took over  the Kotte kingdom, the Sinhalese moved the Sinhala kingdom to  the Udarata. Vimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1604) the first ruler of Udarata kingdom, rescued the Tooth Relic from Delgamu vihara. He built a splendid two storied relic house  near his palace and placed the  Tooth Relic there.

The Udarata kingdom was a huge kingdom, extending from the western shore to the eastern shore and including the ports of Kalpitiya and Trincomalee. The Portuguese and the Dutch possessions in Sri Lanka in the south west, were small in comparison. (See map no 4 in KM de Silva ‘History of Sri Lanka ‘)

The Udarata kingdom never went under the rule of either the Portuguese or the Dutch. The Udarata kings such as Rajasinha II were feared by them. The Tooth Relic continued to stay safely in the Udarata.

The Udarata capital, Senkadagala was   attacked several times by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Whenever this happened the Sangha took the Tooth Relic away from the capital Senkadagala  and hid it. During the rule of Senerat when the Portuguese invaded, the Tooth Relic was hidden in  Pansiyapattu in Dumbara. Pansiyapattu had impenetrable forests,   mountains and rivers. The public there  were  ‘made to protect the relic’.

Vimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707) was very religious. He held a festival of the Tooth Relic  built a three storied palace and golden reliquary inlaid with precious stones . Hs son, Narendrasinha, rebuilt the palace his father had built for the Tooth Relic and had thirty two jatakas tales painted on the two walls of the courtyard. Reported the Culavamsa.

 The next king came from Andhra Pradesh,  India. He was Sri Vijaya Rajasinha ( 1739-1747). According to Culavamsa, he became a Buddhist  and patronized Buddhism . He  refurbished the Dalada Maligawa ,  organized  a grand festival in honour of the Tooth Relic and displayed the relic to the public.

 King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1782- 98) is remembered today as the king who combined the Dalada perahera with the annual procession held in Senkadagala for the Hindu gods, Pattini, Kataragama and Vishnu. I think that the Natha devale perahera would also have joined this collection of peraheras  once the Dalada Perahera  came in. Natha  is not a Hindu god. Natha is  a Mahayana deity, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Esala perahera which continues to this day in Kandy, started in the  time of Kirti Sri Rajasinghe.

The last King of the Udarata kingdom, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe added the Pattirippuwa to the Dalada Maligawa. This is today, the most conspicuous part of the Maligawa. During the reign of Sri Wickrema, in 1815, the British took the Udarata kingdom. The Sangha once again took the Tooth Relic away from Senkadagala for safety. After considerable persuasion, they surrendered the Tooth Relic to the British rulers. The Tooth Relic was brought back to the Dalada Maligawa in procession   in April 1815.

It was brought back in a  magnificent procession. This procession was conducted very correctly, said observers, not a single lapse. It is difficult to see how this could be. It had at least one alien element in it, the British representative John D’Oyly.

This perahera,  according to the description related by Dewaraja, was full of tusked elephants, grandly dressed,  in sets each of eight, six and five.  First came eight  elephants, followed by the  High priests, then Adigar Molligoda heralded by whip crackers and accompanied by other disawas, then came another five elephants with the Maligawa tusker in the middle, his tusks cased in gold. Then came John D’Oyly  followed by Ehelepola on a horse. The procession was a mile long. 

The Tooth Relic was handed over to the Sangha. D’Oyly was invited to join them in the relic chamber. D’Oyly accepted and said that the Governor, Robert Brownrigg wished to  make an offering to the Temple and  handed over  a beautiful musical clock. This was accepted with great delight by all present.

The keys of the casket containing the Tooth Relic were now given to D’Oyly. The Dalada perahera was held again in 1917 and there are two eye witness accounts of it, by John Davy, physician to the Governor and also by Milleva, former dissawe for Vellassa.

Then came the  rebellion of 1817 which was led by the ex-Bhikkhu Vilbave. He obtained possession of the Tooth Relic , which he had  secretly removed from Kandy, with the help of soldiers and some bhikkhus.  The British quelled the rebellion, took back the relic and in 1818 banned the Dalada perahera.  But after a prolonged drought, the British administration was persuaded to re-start the Perahera. The perahera was held   in 1828 under the patronage of the Governor.  There were torrential rains during the entire festival.

The British government was now the custodian of the Temple of the Tooth. And the Tooth Relic was in the custody of the Government Agent, Central Province.  The keys of the casket were with him. The temple officials were appointed by him. The temple lands continued to perform services for the Maligawa.

The Christian  missionaries in England were dead against the  British administration supporting Buddhism like this in Sri Lanka . Viscount Torrington was sent as Governor in 1847  with orders to de link the British administration from Buddhism . In October 1847, the Temple of the Tooth was handed over to a committee of two Bhikkhus and a chief, a decision which the Buddhists accepted with great reluctance, said Dewaraja.

Today, Dalada Maligawa is open to the public all through the year, every day.  But as far as I know, the only time the relic is presented for public exposure is the Esala Perahera.  The audience seated on the pavement watching the Perahera say ‘Sadhu Sadhu’ and bow before the Maligawa Tusker, as he moves along majestically carrying the karanduwa.

The Dalada Maligawa has various rituals including daily rituals.  There is the morning, noon and evening thevava, with drumming in the open area facing the relic chamber. The Maligawa is also the focus of the Alut sahal mangalyaya ceremony held in January at the commencement of the harvest. At an auspicious hour, the paddy set aside for the Maligawa from the new harvest is brought on an elephant and ritually offered to the Maligawa, which means it is offered to the sacred Tooth Relic.

The Sinhala   kingdom  and the Tooth Relic  would never have migrated to the central hills as it did, if not for the arrival of the Portuguese. The Sinhala king and the Tooth Relic ended up in the ‘Uda rata’ only because of the foreign occupation in the ‘Pahata rata’.

From the 13 century the seat of government was moving downwards as the East-West trade routes started operating near the island’s fat bottom. The great leap to Kotte from Gampola shows that the monarchy realized that they had to get to the southern coast fast.

I think that the capital city would not have stayed for long in Kotte either. It is not possible to rule the whole island from Kotte. The central hills are blocking. The capital city would probably have moved from Kotte to a permanent capital in Ruhuna from where it would have been easy to monitor the rest of the island, specially the east coast .The Tooth Relic would then have gone where it had not gone before, to Ruhuna.

 I have extensively used the text of The Kandy Asala Perahera” by Lorna Dewaraja (Vijita Yapa, 2018) for this essay and wish to make grateful acknowledgment.

2 Responses to “THE TOOTH RELIC OF SRI LANKA”

  1. Nimal Says:

    One must practice the true teachings of Buddha and not exploit his remains.Kanduy pereahara was created by the colonial governor Manning for the enjoyment of once suppressed people by the Dravidian leaders who may have pretended to be Sinhalese. When the first perhara was about to be performed there was a strong objection by the so called Sinhala chieftains and the colonials had to bring down over 1800 Malay troopers to protect the people.
    If the Maligawa was Buddhist and even Sinhalese then why was the only road next to it was called the Malabar street? Why was symbol at the front of the Malgawa and other main temples had Hindu markings and why were that other temples near by was called devalues,where Buddah never preached about a god.Thanks to the colonials we Sinhalese got our country back.so be grateful.First perahara was in 1828 and first school was built in 1822 and what did our two bit criminal kings do for humble people like us,nothing?I was old enough to notice their orderly and generous life before they departed in 1948.I wish they come back and put the country right,the wish of many people in the old colonies. This is the vey reason why our people want to migrate to their countries so we must be honest with our selves.

  2. Ratanapala Says:

    Great article by Kamalika with references to Lorna Devaraja work. However, Nimal’s myopic knowledge of the vicissitudes of history – his inability to appreciate the nation’s voes through the ages and mostly his subservience to the foreign powers is deplorable at the highest level.

    At the moment all that we hear are cries from those in the UK, US and others to return to Sri Lanka!

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