Friday, 29 July 2016

Burning Buddha's Tooth

     When one of the Pandyan kings, an invader and Hindu fanatic, ordered the destruction of the Buddha's tooth, the holy relic rebounded from the hammer blow in a ball of light. That, at least, was the event depicted in this modern painting in the inner sanctum of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. This was the last photograph I was able to take in the temple, because immediately afterwards the battery in my camera failed. Well, I had my revenge on the Tooth. Shortly afterwards, I told my companions its dirty little secret.
     Let's start from the beginning. When the Buddha passed away about 483 BC (some would say later), his body was cremated, like that of any other good Indian. It is said, however, that his ashes, and what were left of his bones, were collected by his followers and distributed among several kingdoms. If this really happened, one would have thought that the original motive would have been sentimental. The Buddha had taught salvation by means of self-knowledge, enlightenment, and the wearing away of desires. As my guide in Sri Lanka put it: there is no point in praying to the Buddha; he is in Nirvana, and no longer has contact with the world. (I am referring to Theravada Buddhism, of course, not the Great Vehicle.)
     But, human nature being what it is, these relics were soon viewed as possessing supernatural power in their own right. And no more powerful relic existed than the tooth which a princess allegedly brought to Sri Lanka from Kalinga, in India, about 312 AD, and which became the palladium of the major kingdom in the north of the island until, after its collapse, it ended up in Kandy. (And I might add one amusing detail. In modern temple paintings the princess is depicted, as are other women, as wearing a strip of cloth similar to a bra. In fact, all contemporary sculptures and paintings reveal that contemporary Indian and Sri Lanka women went completely topless.)
    To put all this into perspective, we might digress and ask how the relics of the saints held in so many churches can be authenticated. The answer is: normally, only by following a paper trail to the earliest written reference to each relic. But the nature of documentation in the pre-printing period is that it becomes rarer and rarer the further back you go, even for legitimate claims. However, there is a rule of thumb. Christians began collecting the relics of the martyrs during the great persecutions of the the third century. A relic claimed for any later saint has a good chance of being genuine. Anything earlier, particularly anything relating to the Apostles, would require very, very solid evidence before its claim is accepted.
     When we get to the Indian subcontinent, however, we find that the paper trail is even fainter. Not even secular histories exist in the detail we are familiar with for ancient Greece and Rome, despite the fact that the civilisation was just as advanced. Partly this is due to the effect of tropical weather on the birch bark and palm leaf manuscripts, and partly due to a phenomenon which a Sri Lankan born historian identified:
[I]t is very likely that the general population was apathetic as far as government was concerned. This apathy amongst the majority of the population is common in the Indian subcontinent even in modern times. It, perhaps, has something to do with basic Hindu concepts, which all Indians and Sri Lankans seem to have inbred in them whatever religion they may now belong to. This may also be a reason for representative government not appearing at an early stage. It is significant that historical records were not thought to be important in ancient India or in Sri Lanka, except for religious purposes. Such records (often in great detail) are kept by people who are not only proud of their past but also wish to keep their successors informed of pitfalls that should be avoided. Greece and Rome were two states that maintained accurate records from ancient times. (Nath Yogasundram, 2006, A Comprehensive History of Sri Lanka from Prehistory to Tsunami.)
      In any case, the gap of almost 800 years between the Buddha's funeral pyre and the Tooth's arrival in Sri Lanka is a severe impediment to authentication. So now let us proceed to the events of 1560 - 1561.
      At that time, Sri Lanka was divided into several kingdoms, of which Jaffna was the most northerly. The rightful heir to the throne having been driven out by his brother, he fled to Goa, the Portuguese enclave on the west coast of India, where he found it politic to convert to Christianity. He then intimated that the Sinhalese who had been converted to Christianity by St. Francis Xavier were being persecuted by his brother. The result was a Portuguese attack on Jaffna which led to their capture of the city, despite being outnumbered nearly two to one. The king fled. Jaffna was given over to plunder.
     And this is where it becomes interesting. In a Buddhist shrine they captured a jewelled casket which had been fiercely defended by the priests, who appeared grief-stricken when it was taken. Inside was a tooth set in gold. Inquiries soon revealed that it was the Tooth, on loan from the temple in Kandy.
     Like a tsunami, the dire news spread through the Buddhist kingdoms of southern Asia. In no time, a message from King Bayin-naung of Burma arrived on a Portuguese ship recently in the country. Now he was offering to buy the Tooth for 400,000 crusadoes, the modern equivalent of four and a quarter million Australian dollars. Indeed, its value was even greater when you consider the much lower standard of living at the time. To Dom Constantino de Bragança, Viceroy of Goa, this was an opportunity too good to miss. By fair means or foul (mostly foul) he had already amassed enough for a lucrative retirement, but this was a windfall. And it was all his; he didn't plan to share it with his cronies, let alone add it to consolidated revenue. He leaped at the offer - although a friend suggested he might have asked for more.
     Alas! Who should turn up but Dom Gaspar de Leão Pereira, the Archbishop. Was he aware, he demanded to know, that this was trafficking in idols? And not just a simple idol, either, but one of their most important. It was probably animated by a devil. They weren't in the east simply to get rich, but to enlighten the heathen with the word of God. To accept the offer would be to encourage the very evils they were commissioned to resist.
     The Viceroy argued his case. The Archbishop declared he would call a joint meeting of the council and the ecclesiastical court. At the assembly the Archbishop spoke at great length, reminding them all how Moses had destroyed the Golden Calf, even though it was made of gold. And all the while, the members of the secular council were thinking: the Viceroy was a greedy so-and-so who didn't want to share. There was nothing in it for them. On the other hand, they were used to seeing the Inquisition burning a dozen people every two or three years, so it wouldn't hurt to get into their good books. They supported the Archbishop. But greed still bore Dom Constantino up, and he continued arguing his case, at which point Dom Gaspar accused him of being a Freemason, which was as good as being an extra faggot for the Inquisition.
     Don Constantino knew when he was beaten. Not only did he refuse the king's offer, but at an elaborate ceremony he handed over the Tooth to the Archbishop. The latter ground it to powder in a mortar. The dust was then burnt in a brazier, and finally, the ashes were consigned to the river. To quote Maurice Collis, from whom I am taking this history:
This elaborate public destruction of the Tooth proclaimed to the world that even a great sum of money could not soften Portuguese hatred of idolatry. But it also showed that their estimate of the Tooth's power only differed from Bayin-naung's in that, while he considered it a good, they were convinced it was a bad, potency. The Archbishop, we cannot doubt, set out to destroy a devil, a difficult feat to accomplish, as will appear in the sequel. Yet the act was, perhaps, the most disinterested ever performed by the Portuguese in India.
     Now let us fast forward fourteen years. The present national capital, Colombo was then a small port (that's what the name means) of the city of Kotte, the capital of another Sri Lankan kingdom. Now an envoy had arrived from the same King Bayin-naung of Burma, who had recently destroyed the kingdom of Siam, looted its golden roofs, and carried away its white elephants. One of his four queens had just died, and his astrologers had informed him that he was destined to marry the daughter of the king of Kotte. Would he please oblige? The upshot was a conversation between the king and his ministers which went something like this:
     "Woe is me! How can I avoid offending this powerful sovereign? I have no daughter."
     "What about your Chancellor's daughter? You love her. You treat her just like the daughter you never had."
     "No can do. They'd kill her when they found out she was not a real princess. And I'd still be in hot water with the King of Burma."
     "Not if she came with a really good dowry."
     "Like what? The loot he got from Siam could never be matched by me."
     "Like the Tooth."
     "The Tooth! The cursed Feringis destroyed it, although the King of Burma offered three times the annual revenue of my kingdom."
     "If a daughter can be found, a tooth can be found."
     So, a few days later, the Burmese ambassadors were shown around the king's treasury. Finally, at nightfall, they repaired to a special shrine, and did obeisance there. The envoys wondered aloud what holy item rested within. At that point they were shown a golden casket which, when unlocked, revealed another casket, and another, and another. And in the seventh and last rested the Tooth.
     Now, the Burmese ambassadors were not born yesterday. They knew what had happened at Goa. It is not quite clear what explanation they were given. One was that, at the last moment, a heavenly being had snatched the holy Tooth from the Portuguese and replaced it with a porcelain one. A second version, somewhat more plausible, was that the King of Jaffna had replaced the Tooth with that of a monkey just before he vacated the city, taking the Tooth with him, to be buried in secret. In neither case was it clear how it ended up in Kotte rather than Kandy.
     In either case, the envoys were convinced. They offered to buy the Tooth, no price being too high. Sorry, the Tooth was not for sale. They pleaded. They negotiated. Still not for sale. Finally, they received the happy news that the king had always intended it to go with his daughter as her dowry, but he had hoped that the lucky bridegroom would have heard the happy news from his bride's own lips.
     It was settled. The lady went to Burma. The Tooth came later, on a date found propitious by the astrologers, to be greeted by the king and all his princes and courtiers with unimaginable pomp. Finally, after many days of ceremonies, and with the original golden casket now studded with rubies and emeralds, the relic was walled up in the Mahazedi Pagoda.
     Shortly afterwards a letter arrived from the King of Kandy. The Tooth was still at Kandy. It had never left Kandy. It had never been to Jaffna, to Goa, to Kotte, and certainly not to Burma. So there!

     Although the Mahazedi tooth, now housed in the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda in Sagaing, is still revered, and claimed to be genuine, it is pretty clear it was a fake. But what about the tooth destroyed at Goa, and the one intermittently on display at Kandy itself today? At the time, nobody - not the kings of Burma or Kotte, nor the Portugueses' informants in Jaffna, who presumably included the heir whose cause they had supported - ever had any doubts about the authenticity of the one destroyed at Goa. The Kandy Tooth was celebrated throughout southern Asia. Bayin-naung himself had previously sent costly gifts to the Temple of the Tooth, including a broom made from his own hair and that of his chief queen, to be used to sweep the precincts. Yet the authorities in Kandy had waited fourteen years to set the record straight. The tooth taken at Jaffna had been in a jewelled case and set in gold. (And that should debunk the monkey tooth story. Even if a monkey's tooth were available at short notice, the monarch would hardly have taken the time to have it fitted into a gold setting when it would have been simpler to take the whole box and run.) It is highly unlikely that two holy teeth were present in Sri Lanka, and nobody ever suggested there were. Meanwhile, several witnesses have described the Kandy Tooth as being two inches long and an inch wide ie too big to be human.
     No, I'm afraid the Kandy Tooth is doubly damned. Not only is it impossible to establish the authenticity of the original, but the original was destroyed, and what is now the subject of devotion is fraudulent.

Reference: Maurice Collis (1943), The Land of the Great Image, Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
(The author was involved in the pre-war administration of Burma. The book is a fascinating tour de force of Goa, Sri Lanka, and Arakan in the sixteenth century.)
     See also this article by George Austin.
PS. I have having extreme difficulty researching the movements of the Tooth, which appears to have been captured and recaptured by many enemies, hidden and re-hidden. Louis Blaze states that a Kandyan chief took the relic to Jaffna when he was seeking help against the Portuguese from the Tamils there. When he was there, he was killed in a quarrel, and the Tooth fell into the hands of the Jaffnese. That is why it was there when the Portuguese captured it.
      It also appears that the king of Kotte had already been converted to Christianity by the Portuguese. It is also stated that the Tooth had been in the safekeeping of Kotte, and had been transferred to Kandy towards the end of the sixteenth century.
     But there isn't any doubt that the Portuguese captured a sacred tooth relic in Jaffna, that a tooth relic was sent to the king of Burma fourteen years later, and there was never any suggestion there were two sacred teeth in Sri Lanka. "Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.

1 comment:

  1. "Piece of the Buddha’ s Skull May Have Been Found in China" by Paul Seaburn, Mysterious Universe July 3, 2016 [with pictures of the reliquary, inscription and stupa]
    According to a new report in the Chinese Cultural Relics journal, a parietal bone (one of the large pair of bones that sit behind the frontal bone) was found inside a model of a stupa (round-domed Buddhist temple) during a 2007-2010 excavation. For obvious safekeeping, the skull piece was inside a small gold chest ( 8 cm -3.1 in) which was inside a silver casket found inside the temple model (a big 4 ft by 1.5 ft – 117 cm by 45 cm), which itself was inside an iron box that was inside a stone chest [....]

    Written on the inside of the stone outer chest were the words of one Deming, who calls himself “the Master of Perfect Enlightenment, Abbot of Chengtian Monastery [and] the Holder of the Purple Robe.” The note says the bone is one of 84,000 pieces of the remains of the Buddha that were left after his body was cremated in India. That country’s King Ashoka divided them up and sent 19 pieces to China.

    Deming’s note says the skull piece was kept in a temple that was destroyed during a war 1400 years ago. Someone saved the relics and, when Emperor Zhenzong rebuilt the temple, the skull and remains of other Buddhist saints were placed in the elaborate set of containers and buried on July 21, 1011 A.D., in “a most solemn and elaborate burial ceremony.” The remains of that temple are where the chest was found in the 2007-2010 excavations.