Who Took Buddha’s Tooth?

Once upon a time, in the central region of Sri Lanka, a prince appeared holding a tooth.

“It’s the tooth of the Buddha!” he exclaimed.

His story was as incredible as it was awesome; nine hundred years ago someone had plucked a tooth from Buddha’s mouth as he was laying on his funeral pyre. What luck! Now this sacred tooth had been stolen and smuggled in from India, hidden in the hair of a Sinhalese princess.

Why people believed him is anyone’s guess. But perhaps in 4 AD, before carbon dating and Nigerian online scams, a story like this did not seem too good to be true. Imagine beholding an actual part of their spiritual leader. Sometimes faith is stronger than common sense.

The sacred tooth became an integral part of the culture in this Buddhist country. It was carried around the country, from one sacred site to another. Temples were built in Anuradhapura, in the capital Polonnaruwa, and wherever the power was held at the time. The king who owned the tooth automatically became the master of the island – it was a treasure beyond measure. The people prayed to it, meditated before it, adored it, bathed it with herbal concoctions.

In 1283, the Indians caught wind of the tooth. In their minds, the Buddha and any part of his divine body was theirs. Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened in India, he taught there, and finally he also died there. They had to have it back. The Indian army invaded Sri Lanka and so the tooth returned to its rightful home.

Not for long. The tooth was far too important to the Sinhalese. King Parakrambahu III resolutely traveled to India and successfully brought the sacred relic back. All was in order again. Until the Portuguese arrived. They didn’t care so much about the tooth, or perhaps didn’t believe the story, but they understood its importance. If they wanted to conquer Sri Lanka, the tooth had to go. So they stole it and burned it.

End of story.

Or not. The Sri Lankans were too clever for the pale Catholics.

“Ha ha ha!” they said. You only stole and burned a replica of the tooth. We still have the real one!”

The tooth again became the most important item in the country, and the Portuguese gave up. There was no way of telling which one was the real tooth.

Two hundred years later, the current Temple of the Sacred Tooth was built inside the Kandyan Royal Palace. Even today, Buddhists from all over the world make pilgrimages to see the tooth. Well, you can’t really see the tooth. You can only see the golden casket where it is held. And you can’t really see it close, because you are only allowed within three meters of the altar in the Vahahitina Maligawa shrine.

But who cares, the actual tooth of the Buddha is held there. (Or is it a replica?)

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