Tag Archives: LTTE

Ecce Dens (Behold The Tooth)

11 Dec
Temple of the Sacred Tooth - Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

Temple of the Sacred Tooth – Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

After the Buddha’s death at Kushinagar, his disciples agreed to distribute the remnants of his cremated body between them. These relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — were divided into eight parts and each ultimately became preserved within the walls of specialized shrines.  These shrines are called Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas depending on the country in which they were constructed. The stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics undertook play an extremely important role in the national pride and history in the countries where the relics are found today.  Most — if not all of these relics — were never moved or relocated after they were enshrined (except due to bombings, wars, or natural disasters).  However, one relic — arguably the most visible and celebrated of all the Buddha’s relics — had no true fixed abode until the late 16th century. This relic was a Tooth — a large upper canine tooth of the Buddha to be exact. This Tooth had also been first smuggled into Sri Lanka around 370 A.D.  Just like the journey of the sapling taken from the Bodhi Tree, the Tooth was also hidden in the hair of a woman who evaded the clutches of various groups as she ventured out of India.  After the Tooth arrived in Sri Lanka, it was not simply viewed as a sacred vestige of the Buddha, but it was also infused with power — for he who possessed the Tooth had divine sanction to rule the country. Sinhalese king after king jockeyed for control of the Tooth and it passed from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Kotte and other Sinhalese kingdoms.  Every time a special shrine was built for the Tooth, the shrine was either destroyed or ransacked and yet the Tooth escaped — hidden by monks who lobbied their weight behind the king best suited to serve as protector and regent of the Tooth. Then, the Portuguese took control over the important coastal zones of Sri Lanka and slowly began to work their way inland as they tightened their grip. Although the Portuguese viewed the Sri Lankan people’s veneration of the Tooth as heathenism, they understood the power of the Tooth. They knew that they would never wield any penetrating influence over the Sri Lankan people if they did not possess it. So, the Portuguese set their sights on attacking the kingdom of Kotte where the Tooth was held at the time. Once the Portuguese sacked Kotte, the guardians of the Tooth had no choice but to hand it over. The Portuguese then shipped the Tooth out of the country to the Portuguese Bishop of Goa who unceremoniously smashed it. But, it was a fake!  The monks at Kotte had given the Portuguese a ringer and the Portuguese did not know the difference. During a volatile period in Sri Lanka’s history when the 16th century Sinhalese king, Wimaladharmasuriya I, began to challenge Portuguese colonial rule only to have another colonial power, the Dutch arrive at the same time so as to complicate the control of the island even further, the Tooth resurfaced in Kandy.

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

Kandy lays in the geographic and cultural heart of Sri Lanka, and so it was here that a permanent home for the Tooth was finally built — the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). There are lush hills that surround Kandy and in front of Sri Dalada Maligawa is a lake that was created in 1807 under the supervision of the last Sinhalese king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha.  The Tooth was placed within a golden casket that has since been lavished and studded with diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones by pilgrims and rulers of other Buddhist nations who have come to pay homage to the Tooth. Kandy has also has served as the host of the most spectacular Buddhist procession in the world — the Esala Perahera — which lasts for 10 days each year starting on the first full moon day in August.  A replica of the Tooth is carried on the back of the most magnificent elephant (the Maligawa Tusker) through the streets of Kandy. This tusker is lit up with bright lights and is accompanied by other elephants, male and female dancing troupes, drummers, reed-players, monks, dignitaries, and lastly, a statue of a standing Buddha. The taxidermied body of the most famous and longest-serving Maligawa Tusker, Raja, is even housed on the grounds of the Temple. The poya in Sri Lanka is a day when a full moon appears and it is a public holiday that allows most Sri Lankans to go to temples to pray and perform rituals.  Only on poya days does the Temple of the Sacred Tooth open its upper chamber where the Tooth’s reliquary sits.  I was lucky enough to be in Kandy on the July 2010 poya and the anticipation of the chamber doors being open on that day was thick in the air.  I knew thousands of pilgrims were in town because I was not able to find a room anywhere. I finally found a flophouse on the other side of Kandy Lake where I had no choice but to bed down that night. After I changed in my room and donned the requisite long pants, I made the walk around the lake towards the Temple. The immediate area surrounding the Temple is heavily fortified and security is tight (the LTTE attempted to bomb the Temple at one point during the civil war). But, once I was inside the Temple its bunker-like exterior was quickly forgotten and I was swallowed by the elegant and intricate harmony of tilework, masonry, and paintings around me.

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The lower floor of the main chamber building is called the pallemaluwa (pavillion of the low ground).  As I entered this room, there were 2 drummers stationed on the main pillars about 3 meters away from the inner chamber door which was closed. This door appeared to be made of iron or copper and bore ornate designs. There were 3 pairs of large elephant tusks framing it from each side.  I came to learn aftewards that this area is called hevisi mandapaya (drummers’ courtyard) and this is where the call to prayer booms on poya days through the drumming and playing of reed instruments by devotees.

Drummers' Courtyard - lower chamber

Drummers’ Courtyard – lower chamber

A broad teak staircase leads to the upper chamber of the Temple complex. When I began to walk up the stairs, I hit a sea of white. There were hundreds of people in a queue and they were nearly all clad head to toe in white linen clothes. These people were waiting anxiously for the doors of the vadahitina maligawa (Tooth Relic Shrine) to open.  I took my place in the line.  It was hot, sticky, and stuffy. People appeared to wilt around me, but no one was complaining.

In the Queue - upper floor

In the Queue – upper floor

As the drumming below continued, we stood in the line and patiently waited for the monks to open the chamber door.  It happened at 6:15pm. For at least 30 minutes or so, a steady stream of bodies whisked ahead towards the chamber. I felt like I was in a line waiting to ride a rollercoaster. The line had right angle turns that doubled-back on itself and then twisted ahead. The last part of the line veered around and in front of a wooden-barred, squared area that faced the chamber. In this area, there were monks and VIP individuals sitting on the ground.  These people chanted and prayed as they basked in a beaming glow that I could see emanate from the open doors. As I got closer to the chamber, the frenzy reached a fever pitch.  Bodies were draped on bodies, bare feet atop bare feet as we drew ever close. The combination of drumbeats, sweat, frangipani perfume, and chanting had me blitzed. My body moved ahead, but my mind was somewhere else — on another plane of consciousness. I tried to focus because I did not want to pass by the Tooth without having any ability to remember the experience.

Last turn toward the Tooth

Last turn towards the Tooth

I could see an orange-robed monk standing behind the chamber door. He would allow each person to stand for about 5 seconds and look at the golden casket that encased the Tooth and then would motion the person aside.

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

When my turn came, I strained with all my being to absorb the sight. The golden casket was set back about 2 meters from the open door and there were guards near it. It was bigger than I had expected and bejeweled beyond belief. Emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and other gems jumped out at me. What I was seeing was the outer golden casket for the reliquary that holds the Tooth. The reliquary itself is like a Russian matroyshka doll. There are actually 7 golden caskets — each of decreasing size and each placed inside the other. It is the smallest one which contains the Tooth. Pilgrims and the public only see the largest outer casket and it is electrifying. I tried to hold my gaze on its gleaming presence for as long as possible, but the swarm behind me pushed me away and I was thrown back into the line which moved away from the chamber and out towards the exit staircase.  I turned back though and was able to weave my way behind the VIP floor area where I could see the golden casket from afar, but then the chamber doors closed. A hush fell on those pilgrims who were still in the queue.  These people had travelled from afar and some held babies in their hands and others carried lotus blossoms. Each was here to lay eyes on this golden casket and seek a blessing from the Tooth.

Golden Casket - detail

Golden Casket – detail

As I waited again for the doors to open, I thought about the dramatic contrast I was experiencing. Just a few days earlier, I had walked up Adam’s Peak with nothing around me but the resolute fierceness of the monsoon winds and rain. Now, here I was completely enveloped by the flesh and pull of humanity. It was a dichotomy of extremes — one reflecting an ascetic rawness and the other smacked of the bacchanalian. Yet, the visceral spirituality of each was the same.  When the chamber doors opened again, I caught another glimpse of the casket and was then gripped by something. My legs wobbled and my face flushed.  Things had finally caught up with me and the adrenaline which had buoyed me through the heights of the last few days succumbed to exhaustion. I steadied myself, but I knew at some point I would have to wheel around and summon my last bit of energy to walk all the way back to the flophouse. For a moment, I had no idea where that was. For a moment, I had forgotten my self.

Out of India [South – The Doctrine of the Elders]

27 Oct

Gangaramaya Temple – Colombo, Sri Lanka (2010)

In May 2009, the 30-year-old civil war that had been waged in Sri Lanka effectively ended with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran – the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamils are a largely Hindu minority in Sri Lanka who live in the north and northeast of the country, and in the early 1980s, a militant, separatist group led by Prabhakaran. The LTTE or Tamil Tigers employed various terrorist-like tactics (including the use of vest-wearing female suicide bombers) in an effort to gain independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. I visited the country in June/July 2010 and was intrigued by how such a bloody armed conflict could have gone on as long as it had within a predominantly Buddhist nation. It seemed like the last vestige of the Dharma must have been cast out because otherwise how could any devout Buddhist sanction the killing of another person? I grappled with this question from the moment I landed in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. I had taken an overnight flight to Colombo from Dubai and the contrast between the dry, desert landscape and sultry, tropical blanket that covered me when I first stepped outside could not have been more extreme.  I flagged down a taxi and began the long drive to Colombo. There was no highway or expressway at that time which linked Colombo to Bandaranaike Airport, and instead, we were just on a sinewy, congested 2-lane road.  But, this drive gave me my first insight into the omnipresent nature of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka.  I saw may small shrines, temples, and monuments along the way. At one point, my cab driver stopped at a light that was near a road-side Buddhist shrine and did a quick, respectful prayer before the light turned green and we drove away. There were only small windows into the tangible pulse of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heart.

Buddha statues – Gangaramaya Temple

Sri Lanka is an island that hangs like a teardrop in close proximity to India’s southernmost point. Yet, despite this proximity, the visual and cultural impact of Sri Lanka more closely brings to mind the look and feel of Southeast Asia and not the Indian subcontinent. Part of the reason for this is that the dominant Buddhist school that took hold in most of Southeast Asia was the Theravada tradition — the “Doctrine of the Elders”.  Sri Lanka was the petri dish in which Theravada was cultivated, groomed, and then exported abroad. In Bodh Gaya (India), I had learned the story of Princess Sanghamitta who had saved a cutting of the sacred Bodhi Tree which she then brought to her brother, Mahindu, who was a Buddhist monk already spreading the Dharma in Sri Lanka. I thought I would be seeing old sites tied to a Buddhist tradition that was likely no longer relevant or integrated into the everyday life of Sri Lankans. I thought the sangha or community of monks and laity had been weakened or marginalized by years of strife, war, and thirst for material possessions, the internet, and etc.  I could not be more wrong. What I found instead was an incredibly vibrant, active brand of Buddhism that provided a social infrastructure for lay people, monks, families, and other individuals of all walks of life to have a role in sustaining the Dharma — whether through giving alms, performing rituals, conducting parades and ceremonies, or undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites on the island.

Relief on outside wall of Gangaramaya showing Mara tempting the Buddha

The great surprise of Sri Lanka is that in the midst of its core Buddhist culture and tradition are various colorful odds and ends– remnants of Portuguese colonization such as striking Catholic churches and surnames, tea estates formerly owned by the British who supplanted the Portuguese with their own Anglican Tudor-designed churches and the Tamils they brought to Sri Lanka to work the tea plantations, and sprinkled here and there are mosques and calls to prayer in Arabic. The island took me on an immensely satisfying journey — both physically and spiritually — where I worked my way down to the south and then circled back up through the Hill Country, on to Sri Lanka’s cultural center, and finally up to its northern plains and ancient past. There is such radical contrast in the terrain and atmosphere in this small country. In the southern point of the island lays the colonial town of Galle and there stands an old Portuguese fortress with large sea-walls which held back the waves of the 2004 tsunami — although many people died around Galle and in the other low-lying areas of the southern Sri Lankan coast. But, things began for me first in Colombo where I had come to see the Gangaramaya Temple and the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Dagoba (“Dagoba” being the Sinhalese word for Stupa) which marks the spot where the Buddha spoke during a visit he had made to the island. Both sites were remarkably active with streams of people and pilgrims pouring in and out, praying, sitting in contemplation, and performing rites. On the outside of the Gangaramaya Temple, there are very detailed reliefs which vividly depict stories from the life of the Buddha. These reliefs are all found on one large exterior wall of Gangaramaya and this wall itself looks like 2 large, gilded doors which reminded me of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (the Renaissance-era doors created on the eastern side of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence). Ghiberti’s doors contain reliefs showing the story of Adam and Eve and other stories from the Old Testament, and that same kind of snapshot storytelling was impeccably conveyed in the reliefs found on Gangaramaya’s outside wall. From Colombo, I set off for the Hill Country. I hopped a train at Colombo Fort railway station and soon rose from the coast to the hills where I was surrounded by rolling greenery and tea bushes. When the sunlight hit these bushes and a wind rustled them slightly, they would flicker like gold. It was the monsoon season and I was headed to a sacred mountain. A mountain that I was intending to scale despite being told that no one — not even the most devout pilgrims — climbed the mountain during the time of the monsoon. I was unmoved. I would do the climb — not because it was there — but because I had to. It was a calling.

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