Professor N. A. Wimalasena -Department of History, University of Peradeniya
The Tooth Relic brought to Sri Lanka in the fourth century and presently being worshipped at the Relic Temple in Kandy had been considered the palladium of royalty and the validator of sovereignty since the 12th century. Its political significance gave rise to internal conflicts and invasions of foreign powers which may well be called ‘Tooth Relic Wars’ and attempts for its destruction. This Relic which strengthened the position of Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy received the highest honors from his successors including some foreigners of Nayak origin and the British who, despite criticism and objections of the Home Office and missionaries, kept it in their custody until the middle of the nineteenth century when they reluctantly handed it over to a Sri Lankan triumvirate yet maintaining an indirect control over its affairs. Although it plays no active role in politics today it is still the most sacred object revered by every political leader and Buddhist worldwide.
TOOTH RELIC of THE BUDDHA, A Relic in Sri Lankan Politics, a historical treatise written by Dr. Dharmaratna Herath, former senior lecturer in history and an alumnus of the then Vidyodaya University of Ceylon (present University of Sri Jayewardenepura) and the University of London from where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in history with honors and the degree of the Doctor of Philosophy respectively, has been published by the Temple of the Tooth Relic in December 2022. It is a rare coincidence that the Relic Temple undertakes to publish a rare piece of research on the Tooth Relic which is a revised and enlarged version of the doctoral thesis of the author submitted to the University of London almost half a century ago.
In addition to such basic features as the Preface and Acknowledgements, Foreword, Abbreviations, Diacritics and Note on Usage, Appendices, Bibliography and Index, this book contains nine chapters on themes which are well designed and appropriately worded signifying its contents. One would note that great care has been taken in every chapter to highlight matters of importance enabling the reader to learn the true nature of events on which several misconceptions and mis- representations have been made by previous historians, writers and observers.
His first chapter which examines works of previous writers, its contents and limitations and illustrates how his work differs from those indicating the methodologies and source material employed to construct the history of the dathadhatu the popular usage of which is dantadhatu. He does not leave out a single piece of source material and evidence which sheds some light on his subject and thereby makes us understand that his work is not based on hearsay but on material found in literary sources both local and foreign, archaeological sources, foreign notices and hitherto unknown manuscripts. This chapter provides an excellent basis for the chapters that follow.
Since the early history of the Tooth Relic is based on the tradition recorded in the Dathavamsa, The Chronicle of the Tooth, Dr. Herath examines its historicity and maintains that many of its details including names of rulers and events are fabrications included in the text by the author whose intention was to present a complete history of the Tooth Relic. The historical basis of this tradition, according to him, is that the Relic came to Sri Lanka from Dantapura in Kalinga, a certain part of present Orissa in India. His identification of this location over half a century ago seems still valid as proved by recent archaeological surveys despite futile attempts of some novices of history.
In Chapter Three of his work, Dr Herath identifies two significant periods of the history of the Relic, i.e. One from Siri Meghavanna to Moggallana III (311-618) and the other from Sila Meghavanna to the downfall of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (619-1017). Analyzing contradiction of importance accorded to it by the rulers and the custodians (the Abhayagiri) and the authors of the chronicle who belonged to the Maha Vihara, he convincingly presents that it was the result of sectarianism in the Order. What is of great importance in this Chapter is his attempt to identify the location of the Meghagiri Vihara refuting the views of Paranavitana and Sorata and maintaining that it was not the Isurumuni in the South of Anuradhapura but a place in the North of Anuradhapura which is yet to be identified. It is surprising that the Archaeological Survey of Sri Lanka has so far not taken any interest in this valuable revelation.
Dominance of the Tooth Relic in both political and religious spheres is the theme of Chapter Four of this work where Dr. Herath identifies four phases of the Relics history which made it the legitimizer of sovereignty and palladium of Sri Lankan royalty. He cites many internal conflicts and foreign invasions for the possession of the Relic and concludes that its importance rose due to its mobile character in addition to being the most sacred object of worship. In his analysis of the contents of the Parakramabahu episode in the chronicle, he disagrees with the views held by reputed historians, Sirima Wickremasinghe and Sirimal Ranawella and indicates that the author of this part of the chronicle had done great injustice to Manabharana and Sugala of Rohana who bravely resisted an invasion of Parakramabahu I to capture the Relic together with the Bowl. Similarly by providing the most appropriate interpretation to the term ‘rajyantara’ found in the Dalada Sirita after the reign of Bhuvanekabahu I of Yapahuwa, he reveals that Arya Cakravarti, the Pandya invader captured the Relic from a non -Sinhalese ruler and that the Relic fell into the hands of two foreigners within a short period. This revelation, it is noted, had been made by him half a century ago as a young academic and interestingly it still remains valid and uncontested. Furthermore, he does justice to Vira Alakesvara whose character had been tarnished by the Chinese admiral Zheng Ha when his attempt to impose Chinese authority had been resisted by the former. The mention of the Bowl Relic in inscriptions of Bhuvanekabahu Vi and Vira Parakramabahu VIII to grant amnesties to the people of the hill country, according to him, should not be taken to mean that the Bowl Relic was in Kotte together with the Tooth Relic as the two Relics appear to have been separated during the reign of Parakramabahu IV of Kurunegala.
Chapter Five which covers a period of five centuries brings to light many features some of which were unprecedented. Foremost among them were the vicissitudes of the of the Tooth Relic after king Dharmapala of Kotte became an apostate, alleged destruction of the Relic by the Portuguese, honors paid to it by rulers of Nayak origin, interest taken by the members of Asgiriya Temple to protect it and by the British to recover and safeguard the Relic. Of these, what is of particular importance is the author’s contribution to dispel the fallacy of the destruction of the Relic by the Portuguese and to dissipate the misconception of a second Tooth in Kandy. Citing all anecdotal evidence and hitherto unknown information, he reestablishes that what is being worshipped today in Kandy is none other than the Relic brought to Sri Lanka in the fourth century.
Expanding the main theme of his doctoral thesis, Dr. Herath emphasizes the major characteristic of the Relic as the validator of sovereignty. Although not so apparent in the early centuries, the Relic’s importance as the symbol of sovereignty grew unabatedly since the 12th century which made the Relic’s history and that of Sri Lanka inextricably woven for almost eight centuries. .He maintains that the political significance of the Tooth Relic is evident even at the present time when it plays no active role in politics.
Chapters seven, eight and nine deal with Property, Treasures and Resources; Rituals, Festivals and Exhibitions and Custodians and Functionaries. Everything including minor details of these characteristics are discussed bringing forth some vital information not found in previous publications. Some information provides the necessary background for further research in economic history and social anthropology. The conclusion sums up all major aspects and revelations of the work.
Citing hitherto unknown manuscripts and publications which are presently extinct, the Appendices provide information to substantiate the findings of the main text while many rare photographs of processions, jewelry and other treasures add color to the book. The Bibliography listing well over 400 source material illustrate the pains taken by the author to produce this historical work. It will also be useful for further research on the subject.
Although the theme has a religious connotation, it is remarkable that despite being a Buddhist, the author never vent his religious leanings in the book and looks at his subject purely as a historian and an anthropologist. This is a rare phenomenon which needs to be applauded. Amidst all good qualities some minor errors such as misplaced punctuation marks, typographical errors (ex. Bhuwanekabhu II, p.21; Dantakumra, p.47), misplaced diacritics ( Mūgapakkha Jātaka instead of Mugapakkha Jātaka, Mahaāpali instead of Mahāpali) could be noticed. Such minor errors are unavoidable in a book of 471 pages and it can be said that they, in no way, affect the overall quality of the book.
In conclusion, I wish to quote a paragraph from the Foreword written by Professor Emeritus S.B. Hettiaratchi which runs as follows. ‘This monograph illustrates the author’s qualifications for due fulfillment of the task he has set himself. He is patient, painstaking, accurate and impartial. His materials are ample and varied derived from every available source presented logically and coherently in systematically arranged themes in his chapters. A vast mass of lesser known information, the insertion of which would have encumbered the text, has been thrown judiciously into appendices yet all of them contribute to a splendid piece of research. Hence, Dr. Herath has, for the first time, been able to reconstruct convincingly a comprehensive history of the tooth Relic up to the present times. It is my view that this work constitutes itself to be a unique contribution to our knowledge of the various attributes of the Tooth Relic and its culture. Nothing produced earlier on the theme matches either in quantity or quality.”
While agreeing fully with him I cannot help but add this to conclude. TOOTH RELIC of THE BUDDHA is not only a piece of splendid research but also a fine piece of art speaking volumes on the taste of a rare academic ably assisted by a renowned art scholar. As many others wish, my only wish is to see the Sinhala translation of this work for the benefit of the majority of Sri Lankans.
Author: Dr. Dharmaratna Herath
Publication: Sri Dalada Maligawa
Pages: Roman, xix
Price: Rs. 14,000 in Sri Lanka as quoted by the Distributor
US$ equivalent in overseas markets