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  • Cecilia Clark

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka: March 31, 2024

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth, home to the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, is situated within the Royal Palace Complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy. How did the tooth relic get to Kandy? That is a long story spanning many centuries and kingdoms. Here is an abbreviated version:

After the death of Lord Buddha a tooth (left canine tooth) was recovered from his sandalwood funeral pyre in Nepal or possibly India. The tooth was smuggled to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali who hid it in her hair. Once in Sri Lanka the tooth was handed over to the the 4th-century King of Anuradhapura (301-328). There the tooth was enshrined next to the royal residence where it remained until the Kingdom of Anuradhapura was sacked in 1017. From Anuradhapura the relic traveled to Polonnaruwa (1070-1232). The relic moved from kingdom to kingdom until, secreted in a grinding stone, it arrived in Kandy in the late 16th century. The first temple built to house the tooth was destroyed by a Portuguese invasion in 1603. It was rebuilt and destroyed a second time. The present temple was built during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha in the 18th century (he is represented by a sculpture in Cave 3 at Dambulla).

The tooth is housed within a two-story inner shrine in the complex. The shrine has a golden roof and the canopy over the main shrine is decorated with golden lotus blossoms. The golden canopy and the golden fence around the first level were added in 1987 by the then Prime Minister. The tooth lies on a solid gold lotus flower within the smallest gold and jeweled stupa shaped casket within a series of seven gold and jeweled stupa caskets of increasing size like matryoshka dolls. It is rarely displayed to the public.

Buddhist monks pay homage to the tooth three times a day. We attended the evening ceremony (Easter Sunday) at the Temple of the Tooth. We waited outside the first level of the Shrine while musicians drummed. Eventually, a line of monks entered from the left led by a monk dressed in white who opened the door to the lower floor of the main shrine. We moved up the stairs with the crowd of worshipers and other tourists to wait for the upper door to open. Some people were already in line to deliver their offerings directly to the doorway. Some people in white were escorted into a waiting area just outside the door to the upper level. Indika said they were donors. Maybe they were waiting for a special audience. We were part of the crowd that waited on the far side of the long countertop covered with blossoms that were also brought as gifts/offerings. Indika brought flowers so he pushed us toward the countertop which gave us a better view. There were crowds of people at our backs.

Finally, the upper door opened and the line of people filed past delivering their gifts. I was never able to glimpse the inside.

After the ceremony, we walked around to see other parts of the Temple of the Tooth and its adjacent buildings. The octagonal tower visible from the outside, built in 1803, houses ancient and priceless palm-leaf Buddhist manuscripts. We walked through this rare library but no photos are allowed inside. We visited some of the museums before working our way outside. One room had many Buddha statues. the main golden Buddha was Thai style. Thailand has the largest population of Buddhists in the world. Outside a sign listed the 17 Buddhist countries: Sri Lanka, India, Bangaladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, China.

We lit incense before leaving.

In the late 20th century there were two bombings that damaged the temple. The first was in 1989 by a militant group called JVP (a Marxist-Leninist communist party) who planned to steal the tooth relic. The second bombing was by the LTTE. Security is tight. The US Embassy in Colombo sent an advisory to US citizens to avoid crowded areas on Easter Sunday. It was the five-year anniversary of the Easter Day bombing of three luxury hotels and three churches (during Easter Sunday services) in and near Colombo by ISIS-related terrorist suicide bombers.

Tomorrow we move on to Tangalle on the south coast of Sri Lanka. It is a long drive.


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