Gautama Buddha said he knew the end was coming. At the age of 80, he had his last meal — either pork or mushrooms, depending on how you translate ancient texts — and died of food poisoning. His body was burned sometime around 543 B.C. on a pyre of sandalwood in northeast India, and as his disciples breathed in the smell of incense the squabbling was already starting: Who would get to keep pieces of his bone and body as relics?
That’s when Khema, a favorite female disciple of Buddha’s, grabbed the master’s left upper canine tooth from the ashes, according to ancient scripts like the Dathavamsa, or “Chronicle of the Tooth,” written by unknown authors in A.D. 310. That one tooth would endure for thousands of years, growing steadily in myth and importance amid war, theft and celebration.
Khema took the tooth across India to the southeastern coastal kingdom of Kalinga, where King Brahmadatta — despite being Hindu — accepted the relic. It was venerated in the capital, Dantapuram — which translates as Tooth City — for more than 800 years. A fourth-century king, Guhasiva, questioned Buddhist worship of the tooth, then converted to Buddhism, and with the zealousness of a recent convert immediately began persecuting followers of the old gods.
The raja was so impressed by the tooth that he too became a Buddhist, followed en masse by his army.
That aroused the anger of neighboring Hindu King Pandu, who’d grown fed up with the tooth worship, and he sent a loyal raja — along with an army — to capture the canine. To his dismay, the raja was so impressed by the tooth that he too became a Buddhist, followed en masse by his army. Nevertheless, the raja brought the relic and Guhasiva to the king, who immediately ordered the tooth be thrown into a pit of red-hot charcoal. “The order was obeyed, but by the mystical power of the relic a lotus-flower of the size of a chariot wheel arose above the flames, and the sacred tooth, emitting rays which ascended through the skies and illumined the universe, alighted on the top,” writes José Gerson da Cunha in the 1875 Memoir on the History of the Tooth‑relic of Ceylon. After more successful trials, the stubborn king finally accepted the relic and teachings of the Buddha, building another temple for the tooth — which was eventually returned to its home in Dantapuram.
The tooth wars were just beginning. Soon a king from the north attacked to capture the relic. He was defeated, but more attackers followed, besieging the city. To keep the tooth safe, it was smuggled out of the city — hidden, according to legend, in Guhasiva’s daughter’s hair — making it all the way to King Mahasena of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. It was venerated in its new home and in 1268 was moved to the mountainous capital of Kandy.
In 1560, Christian Portuguese colonizers captured the kingdom. “Amongst the spoils of the principal temple they brought to the Viceroy a tooth mounted in gold, which was generally said to be the tooth of an ape, but which these idolaters regarded as the most sacred of all objects of adoration,” writes the 16th-century historian Diogo do Couto. The King of Burma offered an immense ransom of gold for the relic, but a Catholic archbishop, animated by the Inquisition, ordered that the tooth be burned, ground to dust and thrown into a river in what Gerson da Cunha describes as “the point of contact between the sublime and the ridiculous.”
But the tooth bested the archbishop, as the legend goes, appearing again in a lotus flower safely in Kandy. Locals have faith it has remained there ever since — aside from being briefly smuggled out during a rebellion against invading British forces — in the Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth. The British eventually captured the city and, with it, the sacred relic. “The effect of its capture was astonishing, and almost beyond the comprehension of the enlightened,” wrote Dr. John Davy of the Ceylon Medical Service in 1821. To the local Buddhists, the loss of the tooth would have been as bad as the loss of their kingdom.
Even today, visitors to Kandy can visit the Temple of the Tooth, or witness the Esala Perahera, where costumed elephants and worshippers parade through the city praying that the tooth will send 10 days of rainfall before the full August moon. And Sri Lankans still hold it in the highest reverence. Kandy tour guide Nimal Kariyawasam remembers visiting the temple almost every week to offer flowers and pray when he was a child: “It’s the most important place for us. Like how Muslims go to Mecca and Christian people go to some other places.” He goes to the Tooth Temple.
In 1998, at the height of conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the mainly Hindu Tamil rebel forces, three suicide bombers struck the Dalada Maligawa, killing 11 people. A Kandy resident quoted in The New York Times after the attack said: “You terrorists, kill us, eat us, but don’t attack our shrines where Buddha lives.”
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