Tourists don’t see Kandy City, nor do they see the Tooth. It is too sacred. I have not seen it either but I know people who have.^
A friend arranged for me to have an audience with the Chief Buddhist Monk in the Malwatte Vihara Monastery, just across the lake from the Dalada Maligawa, the proper name for the Temple of the Tooth. It was a daunting prospect as this monk is the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Buddhists here. This monastery is the bastion of religious and political power in Sri Lanka and the president visits before making big political decisions.
People of Sri Lanka
Every few years there seems to be an outbreak of Buddhist Fundamentalism. Sri Lanka for the Buddhists, exclude all others and other unpleasant claptrap like some of our pseudo-political minorities in UK preach. We know the others consist of Tamils, Christians both Anglican and Roman Catholic with Methodists and others. Many of the Christians are Burghers, people of mixed blood from the time of the colonial powers, Portuguese, Dutch, British and others.
Burghers made up the civil servants and became a powerful educated middle class in their own right after independence. Then there are the Veddha, aboriginal people who were hunter gatherers until quite recently.
Then add the Muslims who have their own fundamentalist agenda and it is not surprising that there are outbreaks of racial tension.
Women and Monasteries
It was deemed inappropriate that Brenda accompanied me to the monastery. The presence of a woman might disturb the contemplations of the monks. I had to agree; she disturbs my contemplation too, in many delightful ways.
Inside the Temple
Since the attempted destruction of the Temple of the Tooth by the Tamil Tigers in 1998, no vehicles can get close to the temple. Surrounding roads have been closed to traffic. With the chief monk in the car, we were waved through the security and entered a side gate past the queues of pilgrims and penitents.
Inside and barefoot we were assailed by the noise of drums and blasts on conch shells and by chanting. The air was laden with smells of incense, fragrant oils and jasmine blossom. Light from candles and lanterns shone back at us from gold leafed decorations and brightly coloured murals.
Pilgrims in white dresses or shirts queued with purple lotus flowers in their palms to present to Buddha’s image. We, Brenda was permitted to join me, were ushered into the small chamber containing the bejewelled casket with the tooth.
The casket resembles a large Fabergé egg and it’s said that there are 4 other eggs or karanduas as they are called inside that. The last one contains the tooth. What does it look like? Read on…
We were invited to scoop up a double handful of jasmine blossoms and place them reverently before the tooth. A monk blessed us and tied a white thread around our wrists. This would protect us until it fell off.
The evening continued as the pilgrims filed past the karandua and the pile of jasmine grew higher and higher. The drummers and chanters became bolder and louder and were joined by reedy wind instruments. If you abandoned yourself to the emotional tide and the current of sight sound and smell, something spiritual was happening.
Is Buddhism a religion?
You could say Buddhism is not a religion as there is no God, no supernatural being in charge of everything and therefore no one to pray to. If you see any Buddhists in an attitude of prayer with their hands together, they are reciting the tenets of their belief in the hope of living a better life.
Anatomy of a temple
What makes a temple? My Buddhist adviser says it is the same as in Christianity (he was brought up as a Catholic.) where two or three are gathered together: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20 New International Version)
Temples, there are a lot of them, have a Stupa or Dagoba, a dome with a spike on top. These are always white-washed and shine starkly above the green trees and against a blue sky.
They are like our church steeples rising in the countryside to mark a village. Then there is always a bo tree (Ficus religiosa), a kind of fig. Its leaf has a long drip tip and a slender stalk so that it shimmers in the slightest breeze.
Buddha achieved Nirvana in 588 BC while sitting under a bo tree in Buddha-Gaya, Bihar, India. A branch of that tree was brought to Sri Lanka in 288 BC and planted in Anuradhapura. It is possible that the one there now is the same one. From it came all the other bo trees in Sri Lanka.
There is an image of Buddha. This is not an idol as they do not worship it but venerate it. There is a Pansala where the monks live and opposite a Vihare or preaching hall.
Organised services as in churches are rare; people drop in when they can and recite their creed. I cynically suggested that a collection box was essential but my friend denies this.
There are usually steps up to the temple guarded by Elephant Head carvings and the threshold is a moon stone of semi-circular shape with 4 concentric rings of animals carved in it. In some temples there is a curtained off area near Buddha’s feet. This is for Hindus.
Buddhism is generously inclusive and if a man has a Hindu wife, she can come to the temple with him and perform the Hindu rituals there.
On a previous visit we had severe rain and landslips. Near us a landslide killed a family of 7 Tamils. They were Hindu but the Hindu temple is miles away. It was agreed the funeral should be held at the nearby Buddhist Temple in the Hindu style. It was such a sad event, a good proportion of Kandy turned up.
Tolerance is the essence of Buddhism and people’s belief in animalistic spirits, devils and the evil eye are common. Astrology with sun and moon worship is also found alongside Buddhism which deprecates but does not condemn. Intolerance develops when Buddhism becomes associated with Nationalism.
You could be a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time as you will not be breaking the first Christian commandment and Buddhism will not condemn the Creed. What would your Bishop say about that?
Outside the temple you can purchase a lotus flower to offer to the Lord Buddha. At the end of the day, these are all sent openly to the garbage heap. It is a reminder of the im-permanence of life.
Since glass reinforced plastic became cheap there has been an unfortunate trend for the faithful, self-aggrandising rich Buddhist to purchase the Biggest Sitting, Tallest Standing, Longest Lying, Most gaudy and Kitsch Buddha in the world to be placed at their favourite temple. Those who have passed through Dambulla will know about this.
Buddhist monks are supposed to be celibate and are not allowed to have money. They are permitted 8 possessions, 3 saffron robes, a feeding bowl, a razor for the head, a bag often containing an umbrella; that is 7. What would be your eighth possession?
Of course there is no abuse of the boys offered to the monasteries, just as there is none in the Catholic or Anglican Churches. My psychiatric colleagues are well aware of what goes on. It has to be said that a young boy will receive a good education and he may or may not become a monk in his time.
But what about the Tooth?
Almost forgot to tell you. Those who have seen it describe a large (2-3 inches) tall piece of discoloured yellow and brown ivory like substance. One friend who has seen it and has a degree in dentistry says it looks like a canine’s canine but it must have been a big dog.^
Post Series: Dispatches from Sri Lanka, by Mike Sedgwick:
- Dispatches From Sri Lanka
- Kandy Lake vs Chandler’s Ford Lakes
- Self-Employment In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Wedding
- Sri Lankan Food
- There’s Some Corner Of A Foreign Field
- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
- This Is the Record Of John
- Tuk-tuk: My Transport Of Delight
- Life On The Road
- Commonwealth Games In Kandy
- A Temple For A Tooth?
- Dawn Train Down The Mountain To Colombo
- Traditional And Modern Medicine in Sri Lanka
- Ancient Vedda Tribe Becoming Extinct