In Sri Lanka, there is an entire temple dedicated to a tooth. It’s not just any tooth, however. It is said to be the tooth of Buddha himself. Appropriately named the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, is, ironically, located in the village of Kandy where the sacred tooth is said to have been housed since 313 AD. The temple is beautiful, and one of the most sacred places in all of Sri Lanka. Here is the strange and captivating story of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Legend claims that the tooth was removed from the mouth of Buddha as he lay dead on his funeral pyre. In 313 AD, Princess Hemamali was fleeing her father’s kingdom in India as it was being attacked by Hindu soldiers. With her, she took the sacred tooth of Buddha. She hid the tooth in her hair and disguised herself as a spiritual Hindu Brahmin to sneak out undetected.
The Princess and her companions sailed from the mouth of the Ganges River to Sri Lanka. Prior to his death, Buddha predicted that Sri Lanka would be free of religious turmoil for 2,500 years. The sacred religious relic found safekeeping in Sri Lanka. It was stored in a series of nesting boxes that were adorned with jewels and only brought out for special ceremonies.
A century later, the capital of Sri Lanka was moved to Kandy, therefore the sacred tooth was moved as well. Between 1687 and 1707, the kings of Kandy ordered that an elaborate and beautiful temple be built to house the tooth. Although the temple is commonly called the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, it is officially named Sri Dalada Maligawa. The temple was built next to the Royal Palace of Kandy and overlooks Kandy Lake. The tooth was carried to its new home on the back of sacred elephants, an animal that was much revered by Buddha.
During the 18th century, local wars fought between the native Sri Lankans and the colonial Dutch and Portuguese caused damage to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The tooth remained safe from harm. Once the fight was over, the people of Kandy replaced the wooden temple with stone.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was damaged again in January of 1998 with a group of Hindi Tamil separatists bombed the building. The roof and facade of the temple were damaged but both were quickly repaired.
The exterior of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic may not be that impressive, but the interior is truly breathtaking and spectacular. The walls of the temple are adorned with lacquered wood, ivory, and delicately carved stone. Candlelight makes the whole temple glow with warm light.
The actual tooth is kept out of view of the public in the inner shrine. Two enormous elephant tusks cross the door of the inner shrine. The tooth sits on a gold lotus flower inside a jewel-encrusted box. The box then sits on the throne.
The ten-day long Esala Perahera festival, held once a year, is the only time that the tooth is brought out from its protected box. The festival, the largest Buddhist festival in the world, begins on the night of the full moon in late summer. A royal elephant…a male…carries the relic and leads a procession that signals the start of the festival. During the event, about one hundred finely dressed elephants parade through the streets, joined by musicians, jugglers, fire dancers, acrobats, and torchbearers. Guests flock to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to pray and offer small tokens. In fact, the temple is one of the most visited sites in all of Sri Lanka…all because of a tooth.