The history of the Sri Daladawa (sacred Tooth Relic)

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Dalada Karanduwa
Dalada Karanduwa

The worship of corporeal remains of the Buddha, as recorded in the Mahaparinibbana-sutta ( the Record of the Demise of the Buddha), was sanctioned by the Buddha himself on the verge of his passing away. The Buddha declared that four noble persons are worthy of their bodily remains being enshrined and honoured, the Buddha, the Personal Buddhas (Pacceka Buddhas,) the Arahanths (Buddha’s disciples), and the Universal Monarchs ( Cakkavatti kings).

The bodily remains of the Buddha, after their distribution among various states that claimed the relics, were enshrined in the funerary mounds known as the stupa. However, the four canine Teeth were said to have been separately enshrined and worshipped. The right canine was worshipped in the heavenly domain of the king of gods, Sakra, while another was worshipped by the king of Gandhara in modern Pakistan. The third was taken away by the Nagas and worshipped placing it in a golden shrine room. The fourth, the left canine was removed from the funerary ashes by a monk and was handed over to the king of Kalinga in Eastern India, as recorded in the Digha Nikaya.

Thenceforth, the Tooth relic of the Kalinga became an object of great veneration by generations of Kalinga kings until it earned the wrath of Brahmanical followers, and consequently, several attempts were made to destroy the Relic by the fanatical rulers. Yet, the Tooth relic was miraculously saved from such atrocities. For this reason, the kings of other states attempted to possess the Tooth relic for personal veneration. Thus, from the beginning, the Tooth relic came to be considered an important symbol of veneration. The last Indian ruler to possess the Tooth relic was Guhasiva of Kalinga (c.4th century AD).

The final attempt made by a neighboring state to make war with Guhasiva for the possession of the Tooth relic caused this venerated relic to leave the Indian shores. By this time, Buddhism was well rooted in Sri Lanka, and the island rulers maintained close relations with the Indian states that fostered Buddhism. Apparently, it was for this reason that the Kalinga ruler, in imminent danger of losing in battle, decided to send the Tooth relic to his friend, the Sri Lankan king.

After about eight centuries of its existence in India, the Tooth relic was secretly taken away by Danta and Hemamala, said to be the son-in-law and daughter of Guhasiva. The literary works like Dathuvamsa, Daladasirita, and the chronicle Mahavamsa, record many and varied vicissitudes that the couple went through en route to Sri Lanka in order to safeguard the relic. It is recorded that the prince and the princess donned the garb of ascetics and carried the Relic hidden within the coiffure of Hemamala so as not to be noticed by passersby. A twentieth-century wall painting of the well-known monastery of Kelaniya (about 5 miles east of Colombo), depicts this episode in a classic style executed by a local artist (Solius Mendis).

Danta and Hemamala were said to have embarked on a ship at the ancient port of Tamralipti, a busy port at the time, located at the mouth of the river Ganges, and reached the shores of Sri Lanka at the port of Lankapattana (modern Ilankeiturei) in the Trincomalee District. The Relic was reported to have performed several miracles en route on the ship itself, thus being venerated by human and superhuman beings. The Tooth Relic finally reached the Sri Lankan capital, Anuradhapura, and according to the Sinhala text, Dalada Sirita, the Relic was kept at the Megagiri vihara in the park Mahameghavana.

At the time of its arrival, the Indian ruler Guhasiva’s friend, King Mahasena had passed away and his son, King Kirti Sri Meghavanna (4th century AC), who himself was a pious Buddhist, had succeeded him. The Tooth Relic was well received by the king and placed on the throne itself with much veneration. The chronicle Mahavamsa reports that the king with great faith had the Tooth Relic enshrined in the edifice called Dhammacakkageha originally built by King Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd century BC, within the royal enclosure (Rajavatthu). The king built a special shrine and enshrined the Tooth Relic therein. This shrine has now been identified as the ruined edifice lying almost next to the great refectory known as Mahapali.

From the time of its arrival in Sri Lanka in the 4th century until the end of the 10th century when the capital Anuradhapura was shifted to Polonnaruva, only a few instances are recorded in the chronicle Mahavamsa . Yet, Fa-Hsien, the Chinese traveler monk, who lived in the Abhayagiri monastery in the 5th century has left behind many details about the worship and rituals connected with the Tooth Relic. According to him, the procession instituted by King Kirti Sri Meghavanna in the 4th century was continued in a grander scale. The sacred Tooth Relic was taken in procession from the Tooth Relic shrine to the Abhayagiri Vihara where the Relic was exhibited for three months with elaborate ritual worship.

Going by the descriptions of literary texts dealing with the sacred Tooth Relic, and also the sporadic references of the chronicle, it is possible to conclude that the sacred Tooth Relic was well guarded by the kings and considered it to be the palladium of kingship. Some of the kings even went to the extent of prefixing the term `Datha’ ( Tooth) to their names, e.g. Dathopatissa, Dathappabhuti, Dalamugalan, etc., which clearly indicates their close association with the sacred Tooth Relic.

The intrusion of South Indian Cholas and the internal disharmony in the ruling houses resulted in the Tooth Relic facing unsafe vicissitudes now and then. Yet, the historical records indicate that the Tooth Relic continued to be in the custody of the Anuradhapura rulers until King Vijayabahu I shifted the capital to Polonnaruva in the 11th century.

The present ruins of the Atadage at the Sacred Quadrangle (Dalada Maluva) in the ancient city of Polonnaruva, is identical to the Tooth Relic temple built by Vijayabahu. The Velaikkara stone inscription standing at the side of this edifice provides many details on the history of the Tooth Relic. It appears that the Tooth Relic, together with the Bowl Relic, was brought down from the Uttaramula -ayatana monastery of the Abhayagiri Vihara and installed in the Atadage shrine. This shrine, according to the Velaikkara inscription, was placed under the protection of the Velaikkara mercenaries who were in the service of the king.

The Atadage was well known for the ritual known as the Netra-Mangallaya. The eyeballs of the Buddha image located in the ground floor shrine room were washed annually with unguent, as recorded in the inscription. The architectural plan of the Atadage too, is significant in that this two-storied plan seems to have been the prototype followed in the later periods down to the present Dalada shrine at Kandy.

According to the text Sasanavamsa, King Vijayabahu I maintained friendly relations with his contemporary, King Anuruddha of Burma even to the extent of the latter requesting the Sri Lankan ruler to send him the sacred Tooth Relic. The wise king appeased the Burmese king’s desire by sending him a replica of the Relic, which is said to be greatly venerated by the Burmese.

The years following King Vijayabahu’s death appear to have been quite calamitous in the political field. The country came to be ruled under separate rulers who were weaklings. Consequently, many Buddhist shrines were destroyed. In this state of affairs, fearing the destruction of the sacred Tooth and the Bowl Relics, the monks secretly removed them to safer locations in the southern country, Rohana. With the accession of King Parakramabahu I in the year 1153 AD, the Sri Lankan political scene assumed a firm basis again. While rebuilding the country’s economy, especially through vast agrarian schemes, he lost no time in bringing about a renaissance in religious activities. Most of the existing religious edifices in Polonnaruva remain mementos of his immeasurable service to the cause of Buddhism.

Parakramabahu I managed to secure the possession of the sacred Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic and enshrined the sacred objects in a new edifice built in the center of the city. He was also said to have had the exposition of the Tooth Relic in a circular shrine built at the Jetavana monastery, which is possibly the ruined edifice in proximity to the Tivanka Patimaghara image house in the northern extremity of the ancient city. The next great ruler to build a formidable Relic shrine for the accommodation of the sacred Tooth and Bowl Relics was Nissankamalla (1187-1196). As recorded in his inscriptions, he had the Relic Shrine Hatadage built and, having offered his son and daughter to the Relics redeemed them with the completion of the shrine. This edifice lying almost adjoining the Atadage, represents a larger version of the Atadage.

By the beginning of the second quarter of the 13th century, the glory of Polonnaruva waned, and with the invasion of Kalinga Magha, the capital was shifted to the southwestern part of the country in the wet zone. Thus, began the Damabadeniya period, which period saw the blossoming of an era of classical literary works.

By this time, the Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic had again been taken away by the monks to a safer location in Kotmale in the central hills. Later, King Vijayabahu III was reported to have brought down the two Relics and enshrined them in a beautiful edifice built for the purpose on the hilltop of Beligala. The king re-instituted the rituals connected with the Relics and handed over the custody of the Relics to his elder son, who succeeded to the throne under the name Parakramabahu II (1236-1270). Being an erudite scholar, he was well known for the compilation of classical literary texts, including the Kavusilumina.

Parakramabahu II brought down the Relics from Beligala in a procession with great veneration and placed them in a shrine built near the palace at the Damabadeniya rock According to the text Dalada Pujavaliya, Parakramabahu conducted the Relics to Srivardhanapura, the city of his birth, and held a great ritual worship. He was responsible for the building of the Tooth Relic shrine at the Vijayasundararama at Dambadeniya, where the Relic was deposited and festive rituals were conducted by the king.

The peaceful and prosperous time under Parakramabahu was disturbed by the invasion of Chandrabhanu of Java. However, the king was able to expel the enemy and bring back the country to a stable status again. It is recorded that during a severe drought, the sacred Tooth Relic was taken out of the shrine, and a great procession was held. He placed the Relic on the throne and having worshipped the Relic for seven days, offered the kingdom to the sacred Tooth Relic, which resulted in the termination of the drought. This incident indicates the esteem that the sacred Tooth Relic enjoyed as a symbol of kingship.

Even during the lifetime of Parakramabahu II, his son Vijayabahu as sub-king, renovated and enlarged the Relic shrine and conducted great ritual services. As the chronicle records, he restored the ruined religious edifices at Polonnaruva, including the Tooth Relic shrine, and having placed the Tooth Relic therein, conducted an abhiseka (coronation) ceremony.

Yapahuva (ancient Subha-Pabbata) came into prominence around this time with the appointment of his brother Bhuvanekabahu as the sub-ruler of this province. This location, simulating the well-known Sigiriya rock fortress, found itself to be a very secure place for the Relics. However, Chadrabhanu of Java invaded the country for the second time and after defeating the local sub-ruler at Yapahuva, demanded the Tooth Relic from Vijayabahu of Dambadeniya. Yet, the Sri Lankan ruler was able to defeat him and bring peace to the island again.

Bhuvanekabahu built a shrine for the sacred Tooth Relic at Yapahuva with a grandeur stairway the ruins of which still portray the aesthetic achievement of the 14th century. As the chronicle records, he continued the tradition of paying homage to the sacred Tooth Relic daily. [h]

Almost after his reign, Sri Lanka again faced severe droughts and also an invasion from the Pandyan country in South India, under the great warrior Arya Cakravarti. He devastated the country and plundered much wealth and treasure, including the Tooth and Bowl Relics, which he handed over to the Pandyan king Kulasekera. The next king, Parakramabahu III visited the Pandyan capital and after friendly discussions, brought back the Relics and initiated the traditional rituals. It is interesting to note that even at this late age, the Polonnaruva Tooth Relic shrine was in existence, for the king is said to have brought the sacred Relics from India to Polonnaruva and enshrined them at the old Tooth Relic shrine at the ancient capital, which was abandoned by this time. According to Marco Polo, a well-known traveler, the Chinese Emperor, Kublai Khan, sent a messenger to obtain the Tooth, Hair, and Bowl Relics from the king. However, the king was able to please the Chinese Emperor by dispatching two fake teeth, which were graciously received by the Emperor who established ritual worship for the objects.

Bhuvanekabahu II (1293-1312) is reported to have brought the Tooth Relic from Polonnaruva and placed it within a shrine built at his capital, Kurunagala.

The next ruler was Parakramabahu IV, during whose time, there was a religious revival. He reorganized the rituals connected with the sacred Tooth Relic in a systematic manner as recorded in the text Dalada Sirita. Yet another significant factor was the handing of the responsibility of the security and conduction of rituals in charge of the chief prelate of the Uttaramula monastery, which institution originated from the Abhayagiri Vihara of Anuradhapura.

The next ruler of note connected with the story of the Tooth Relic was Bhuvanekabahu IV, who selected a new capital, Gampola, in the central hills. Yet, no mention is made of his bringing the Tooth Relic to this new city. It was possibly Vikramabahu III who had the Relic shifted to this hill capital and held a festival in honor of the sacred Tooth Relic. He is credited with the building of the shrine at Niyangampaya at Gampola, which comes closer to the 14th-century Gadaladeniya temple in the decorative elements.

Thereafter, Bhuvanekabahu V (1372-1408) shifted the capital to Jayavardanapura Kotte closer to Colombo. Although he did not bring the Tooth Relic to the capital, he is reported to have conducted many ritual performances for the Relic. It was his successor, Virabahu, who brought down the Tooth Relic to Jayavardanapura Kotte from Gampola. China entered into Sri Lankan politics during his reign. The Chinese general, Chen Ho, invaded the island, captured the king and the family and took them before the Chinese emperor at the time, together with the Tooth Relic. However, conflicting and stronger reports conclude that the Chinese general did not take away the Relic and that he left the island after paying due homage and worship to the sacred Tooth Relic. This belief is corroborated by subsequent reports on the processions, festivals, and rituals conducted by rulers like Parakramabahu VI, who was held in high esteem as the greatest ruler of the late medieval period. He is said to have built a three-storied shrine for the Tooth Relic, had four golden caskets enveloping the sacred Tooth Relic, and promulgated several regulations in the service of the Tooth Relic.

The subsequent period, which saw the arrival of the first colonial power, the Portuguese, in 1505, brought about the deterioration of Buddhist activities. Further, the disturbances in the ruling power, missionary activities of the Colonial powers of the Portuguese and the Dutch, and other calamitous situations resulted in the Tooth Relic being secretly carried away by the faithful monks to safer locations. Thus, the Relic was shifted to the next kingdom, Sitawaka ruled by Mayadunne. According to Dathadhatuvamsa, prior to the bringing of the Tooth Relic to Ratnapura, it was taken as far south as the Mulgirigala Vihara and then to the Ridivihara in the Kurunegala District. The Tooth Relic was finally hidden in a coirn located in the Delgamuva Vihara in Ratnapura, and it was from this temple that the Tooth Relic was brought to its final and present resting place in Kandy by Vimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1603).

Literary sources indicate that the sacred Tooth Relic was received by King Vimaladharmasuriya 1 with great veneration and placed in the new three-storied shrine built by him near the royal palace. The Dutch Plan of 1765 shows the ground plans of two shrines. The one at the back should be the original one built by the king.

On his death, the kingdom was again plunged into difficult times. Finally, Senarat (1603-1634), a brother of the deceased king occupied the throne. Yet, he had to face severe opposition from the contenders and, as a result, the king had to live in such distant places as Mahiyangana. He was able to take the Tooth Relic to a safe location at Madamahanuvara in the hills enveloped with thick forest cover. Even under these difficult conditions, King Senarat was able to give due honor to the sacred Tooth Relic by placing it in a suitable shrine.

Rajasimha II (1634-1686) succeeded King Senarat. As the Portuguese interference in local political affairs intensified, Rajasimha sought the aid of the Dutch to circumvent the situation. This action did not meet the approval of the people and a chaotic situation arose again, even to the extent of ceasing the holding of the annual Tooth Relic festival and the king leaving the palace. In spite of these troublesome days, he was able to rebuild the sacred Tooth relic shrine into a two-storied structure and place the Tooth Relic therein.

After Rajasimha II, Vimaladharmasuriya ll (1686-1706) occupied the throne. He was a peace-loving ruler and was able to maintain harmonious relations with the Dutch and attend to many religious activities. The higher ordination of monks was re-established with the help of Burmese monks. As the chronicle relates, he built a new three-storied Relic House for the sacred Tooth Relic. This probably constitutes the structure shown in front in the Dutch Plan of 1765. The king is also credited with the preparation of a grand golden casket for the sacred Tooth Relic and he held great festivities and rituals in honour of the sacred Tooth of the Buddha.

Next in line of the ruling house was King Viraparakrama Narendrasimha (1707-1739). He was the last Sinhalese king of a long line of rulers and is credited with the protection of the sacred Tooth Relic and the ritual honors accorded to the Relic. As the Mahavamsa records, he rebuilt the Tooth Relic shrine making it two-storied. The chronicle provides a graphic description of the decoration of the shrine with murals of jatakas, etc. At the recent bomb blast of the Tamil Tigers, amidst destruction and devastation of the Dalada Maligava premises, the structure of this shrine known as Vadahitina Maligava was miraculously saved. The falling off of the top plaster of some parts of the walls of the inner shrine has revealed some of the original murals that would belong to the rebuilder of the shrine, Narendrasimha.

The next ruler was Sri Vijaya Rajasimha (1738-1746) of South Indian Nayakkar origin, who became converted to Buddhism under the influence of Venerable Valivita Saranankara. He was recorded in the Chronicle, Mahavamsa, as having opened the relic casket and seen the sacred Tooth Relic with his own eyes. With this incident, the king went into raptures and held a ceremony for the sacred Tooth Relic, surpassing all other festivities held in the past.

The second Nayakkar ruler was King Kirti Sri Rajasimha (1746-1779) . He was able to get down monks from Siam (Thailand) under the leadership of Venerable Upali, to hold the Higher Ordination ceremony of the novices including Venerable Welivita Saranankara, who later was declared the Chief Sanghanayaka (Sangharaja) of the Malvatta Chapter. King Kirti Sri remains the greatest benefactor of the sacred Tooth Relic. Many festivities and rituals were instituted by him, including the addition of the Dalada Procession to the Asala festival, which was at the time confined only to the four Devales of Natha, Visnu, Kataragama, and Pattini.

The external interference in local politics resulted in the invasion of Kandy by the Dutch and the Sinhalese seeking the aid of the British, who had already engaged themselves in the maritime trade. For about a year, the Tooth Relic was hidden away in the hills in safer sites. The king too fled to Hanguranketa.

Finally, the Tooth Relic was brought back to Kandy and placed in the shrine with much veneration and ritual worship was commenced. Thereafter, the third Nayakkar, Rajadhi Rajasimha (1779-1787) became king. Being a devoted Buddhist, he too continued the ritual worship connected with the sacred Tooth Relic.

It was at this time the two European powers, the Dutch and the British, were enhancing their struggle for supremacy over the island. At this moment, the last king of the Sri Lankan ruling house, Sri Vikrama Rajasimha, (1797-1815) also a South Indian Nayakkar, occupied the throne. His short period ended with the occupation of the island by the British in 1815. Nevertheless, the king was able to continue the rituals connected with the sacred Tooth Relic. Possessing an aesthetic outlook, Sri Vikrama transformed the existing paddy field into a beautiful lake and named it `Kiri Muhuda’ (Milky Ocean), thus bringing resplendence to the city of Kandy (ancient Senkadagala).

Under the prevailing calamitous situations, the Buddhist monks were able to take away the Tooth Relic to many safer locations. The British Governor at the time was Robert Browning, who showed some keenness to safeguard the religious activities of the Buddhists, particularly those connected with the sacred Tooth Relic. By now, the Britishers had realized the importance of the Tooth Relic to the natives, and therefore, did their best to please the Buddhists by showing much munificence to the worship of the sacred Tooth Relic. They too seemed to have realized the value of the Tooth Relic as the palladium of kingship. John D’Oyly , who was in charge of Kandy at the time, was originally averse to the Buddhists under Governor Maitland, but subsequently under the influence of Governor Brownrig, played a friendly role towards the Buddhist religion. Elaborate preparations in the form of festive celebrations and even processions were performed with a view to receiving the sacred Tooth Relic back in the Dalada shrine in Kandy. Yet, doubting the intention of the British, the local prelates and chieftains showed some reluctance to oblige to their request.

During this period, the Tooth Relic had been moved to several locations such as Bamabaragala, Talagune, and Madivaka viharas and the jungles of Bintanna, the country of the Vaddahs, and after the cessation of hostilities to some extent, the Tooth Relic was brought to a location closer to Kandy. Finally, with the help of the Chief Adigar, Ahalepola, and chief prelates of both Malvatta and Asgiriya Chapters, the Tooth Relic was taken from its final resting place at Hindagala to Kandy with ceremonial processions arranged with the collaboration of British regiments who themselves marched in the Dalada procession.

The Britishers faced yet another uprising of the Sinhalese led by Kapptipola in 1818 in the Uva Province. The Kandyans were again plunged into a bloody war situation. In these circumstances, the sacred Tooth Relic was taken away secretly to Hanguranketha by the monk engaged in the daily service (Tevava) of the Relic. The uprising was finally quelled and the sacred Tooth Relic was reposited in the present Dalada shrine and all religious services were reinstated, including the holding of daily service and the annual procession.

The British Government, having realized the importance of the Tooth Relic being left in charge of the Sinhalese Buddhists, made all necessary arrangements to form a strong committee to oversee the affairs of the Tooth Relic. This committee comprised

  1. Diva Nilame (Diyawadana Nilame)
  2. Six important prelates from the Malwatta and the Asgiriya monasteries (3 from each temple),
  3. The Chieftains of Udunuwara, Yatinuwara, Dumbara and Harispattuva, and
  4. The Basnayakes (Custodians) of the four Devales (Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and Pattini) and the Maha Saman Devale.

The Committee was to be chaired by the Diyawadana Nilame ( Lay Custodian of the sacred Tooth Relic). Although the responsibility of the Tooth Relic was handed over to this Committee on 2nd October 1847, yet, the three important personages who acted as the custodians constituted the Maha Nayaka Theros of the Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters and the Diyawadana Nilame. After the 1848 rebellion, the British Governor took over the responsibilities in regard to the Tooth Relic, and finally in 1853, all responsibilities were vested in the three members mentioned above. However, the British Government seemed to have continued some authority over the Tooth Relic in that, after the completion of the annual Dalada procession, the Diyawadana Nilame and the Basnayake Nilames of the four Devales had to report the successful completion of the event to the Governor at his Lodge. The tradition continues to this day, where at present the Head of the State, the Executive President receives the Nilames at the Kandy official lodge.

Also See

  • Kandy – The Last Kingdom of Sinhale

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