Sacred Temples and Trees
Buddhism is central to the Sri Lankan way of life, and with so many important Buddhist sites around the island, much of Southeast Asia regards Sri Lanka as a spiritual leader.
Two of the most frequented pilgrimage sites are the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, and, further up north, the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura.
From the second floor veranda of our colonial hotel, the Olde Empire, we had a perfect view of the heavily guarded entrance to the tooth temple. You might wonder how Buddha came to loose his tooth. According to legend, his incisor was snatched from the flames of the funeral pyre in 543 BC. Someone actually had the nerve to knock out Buddha’s front tooth. And that wasn’t all. Other Buddhist sites are said to contain Buddha’s collarbone and other bits and pieces of his body. This spells major bad karma. Talk about coming back as a roach.
The tooth was smuggled from India to Sri Lanka hidden in a princess’ hair. It was moved around the island, recaptured by an invading Indian army, returned to Sri Lanka, and stolen by the Portuguese. Eventually, the tooth was brought back to Sri Lanka where it is now kept in the Temple of the Tooth.
So, of course, we wanted to see it. Naively, we thought we could walk right up to Buddha’s tooth and get a good look at it. But none of that. This is, after all, the most sacred relic and it is kept in a golden stupa-shaped casket inside a relic chamber. Oh well, at least we had the chance to collect some karmic bonus points.
The immense importance of the tooth temple is reflected in the way it’s guarded. Visitors have to go through street barriers, metal detectors, and be frisked by armed military personnel. In 1998, the Tamil Tigers, a Hindu rebel group, detonated a bomb which severely damaged the temple. Thus, the Sri Lankan government has been doing everything in its power to prevent another attack. In fact, security has been jacked up at the temple in the last few days as there has been heavy fighting in the north between the Tigers and the government.
But the Temple of the Tooth is not the only site which is heavily guarded. To get to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, pilgrims and tourists have to go through similar security checks. After all, the tree is the direct descendant of the original Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India, under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.
As you might remember from our posting in Bodhgaya, the original Bodhi tree was killed by Emperor Ashoka’s wife, who had grown jealous of his obsession with the religion. Luckily, a sapling from the Bodhgaya tree had previously been carried to Sri Lanka by Princess Sangamitta, Ashoka’s daughter. It was planted there in 288 BC. So when the original tree in Bodhgaya was destroyed, it was replaced with a seedling from the Sri Lankan Bodhi tree.
The Sri Maha Bodhi tree doesn’t just share the spiritual limelight with the tooth temple, it also shares its violent history. In 1985, 146 Buddhist pilgrims were murdered at the tree site in a surprise attack by the Tamil Tigers. There are no obvious signs of this bloody massacre today – only quiet chanting and devotees offering flowers and fruit to Buddha statues in temples situated around the giant tree.
Although Bodhgaya is still important for being the location where Buddha achieved enlightenment, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka is meaningful because it is the original Bodhi tree’s most direct descendant. As a matter of fact, it is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world and has been looked after by a continuous succession of caretakers for over 2,000 years. And that’s quite an achievement.