Palladium of rule

On April 24, 1815, the Englishman John D’Oyly (1774-1824), First Baronet of Kandy, took off his shoes to follow a tooth relic of the Buddha as it was returned to its temple, where he made an offering of a musical clock.

Small moments such as these are central to John S. Strong’s The Buddha’s Tooth: Western tales of a Sri Lankan relic. D’Oyly’s encounter with the relic illustrates two key themes of Strong’s careful study: firstly, the tooth relic was an object that could easily be moved from place to place, which could lead to intrigue but also gave it a “cosmopolitan” aspect; Secondly, and more importantly, the tooth relic became an important part of the encounter between representatives of western colonial endeavours and Sri Lankans. The nature of the encounter was expressed through how people such as D’Oyly interacted with the tooth – here, following the Sri Lankan custom of removing one’s shoes to enter the temple in which the relic was housed, and making offerings. Both of these actions were controversial, as they suggested that the tooth was a special kind of object. The status of this special object would garner considerable attention from colonial powers in South Asia.

The tooth relic that D’Oyly encountered is the second of two teeth whose history is explored here. The first was looted from Sri Lanka by the Portuguese and destroyed in Goa around 1560. Accounts of it do not appear until several decades after the events, and are inconsistent regarding where the tooth was found and from whom it originated. In his introduction Strong notes that “there is little hope of recapturing any historicity in this matter”, and that he will instead follow its “storical evolution” through the various narrative elements included in the accounts of the relic.

Strong begins by laying out the fourteen sources for tales of the tooth, written variously by a Franciscan friar, Dutch missionaries, Portuguese scholars and a German cartographer. He then considers differing accounts of where the tooth was found, with Dutch-German histories clustering around Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) – a mountain with significance in Buddhism, Islam and Christianity – and Franco-Portuguese ones asserting that the tooth was captured in Jaffna . Perhaps more significant than where the tooth was seized by the Portuguese, however, was the disagreement about whose tooth it was. Dutch-German sources treated the tooth as that of a monkey, while Franco-Portuguese accounts also included the possibility that it was the tooth relic of the Buddha. As a monkey tooth it was associated in European sources with worship of Hanumān, the monkey-god who is an important character in the Rāmāyana. The problem with this is that Sri Lankan sources do not attest to active Hanumān devotion. Those identifying the relic as that of the Buddha are much more in alignment with Buddhist traditions and reflect a growing understanding of Buddhism as a pan-Asian religion.

Whether the tooth was Hanumān’s or Buddha’s, it was destroyed – although not before some debate. Strong spends a chapter considering Portuguese arguments about whether it was appropriate to ransom the tooth or whether it should be eliminated as the idol of a non-Christian, and therefore dangerously false, tradition. Those who felt destruction was the only option won the day: the tooth was burnt, ground up and thrown into the sea. Strong suggests that the destruction of the tooth has some parallels to Hindu funeral rites, the destruction of idols and posthumous accusations of disinterred bodies as part of the Inquisition.

The second part of The Buddha’s Tooth turns to the British encounter with a tooth relic housed in a temple in Kandy, where it served as a palladium of rule. Strong details the status of the tooth prior to the British takeover, during the seizure of Kandy and finally through its return. For this tooth there was no question that it was a relic of the Buddha, and it had an entourage, like that of a sovereign, and received daily devotions that closely resemble pūjā (Hindu ritual prayers). It was thus an important object for any ruler to secure. Enter D’Oyly, who knew Sinhala and had an extensive network of contacts. When the British took Kandy in 1815, the ruler, Śrī Vikrama, and the relic were not there. D’Oyly was able to locate the king, but the tooth relic could not be returned until there were enough jewels to adorn it. After a series of a mix-ups and delays began to create suspicion about the relic’s authenticity, the tooth was finally returned and D’Oyly made the offering described above. This angered Christians, who believed that his actions represented religious veneration. Strong argues, however, that D’Oyly likely saw the tooth as a “charismatic object” connected to rule in a secular sense.

The reverence offered to the tooth was affected by British colonial policy towards Buddhism, and missionaries attempted to influence the official position on the tooth. They felt strongly that the British government should cease any support for Buddhism, but civil servants on the ground in Sri Lanka understood the situation as more complex, recognizing the tooth’s multivalent significance. The slow nature of communication between the colony and the decision-makers in England meant that the Sri Lankan governor handed over control of the tooth only in 1853.

Naturally, there were exhibitions of the tooth. The first was a failed showing to the king of Siam in 1897. He had expected that he would be able to touch the tooth, and was denied this opportunity. This was a such an important incident that it merited investigation, and it was determined that a temple trustee, TB Panabokke, had unilaterally made the decision. He may have been working with the British, who was concerned about efforts to make King Chulalongkorn the head of Buddhism in Burma and Ceylon as well as Thailand. The British realized that they could not allow the tooth relic to be used to legitimize others. As for how the British perceived encounters with the tooth in the twentieth century, the royals had made a practice of seeing the tooth on their visits to Ceylon, but Elizabeth II’s visit in 1954 prompted some questions. Firstly, should she visit at all? Calls in Sri Lanka to leave the Commonwealth made it politically expedient for her to do so. The next significant question was whether she should remove her shoes to view the tooth, and British representatives carefully argued that to do so would not have religious significance. The request for the Queen to remove her shoes also demonstrated Ceylon’s independence and the fact that the tooth no longer belongs, in any sense, to the British sovereign.

An overarching theme in the stories of both teeth is the status of relics as both religious objects and political ones. Strong makes use of Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah’s concept of the “social loops” of “charismatic objects”: the “ideological or devotional” loop and the secular loop of “political or commercial” purposes. Relics bring these two dimensions together, but, as Strong demonstrates, the colonial encounter often tried to tease them apart. The changing positions of the British reflect an attempt to decouple the relic’s political significance from its religious one; this seems to have been an impossibility for the Portuguese, even if they were not quite sure to which religion the relic belonged.

Strong marshals a wide range of sources and tells the story of the tooth relic in a compelling way. There is a pleasure in the details of storical accounts, but small stories always connect to larger ones – and those larger stories are mostly downplayed here. This is not just the story of a relic, but of western colonization and its appropriation or destruction of the traditions of the colonized. For example, when arguing for ransoming the tooth and using the money to evangelize, a Portuguese military officer is recorded as saying: “But with this influx of cash, if we accept it, we will indubitably be able to send to the bottom of these waters many Gentile tribes, each of which is a pagoda of idolatries”. The Portuguese aimed to destroy not just the tooth, but the religion that honored it and those who engaged in such practices: they intended to carry out cultural genocide. The British may not have been as blunt in their designs, but they introduced taverns to Ceylon, leading to alcoholism that weakened civil institutions in much the way that opium addiction did in China. Strong mentions these details, but does not connect them to larger issues and historical patterns. As fascinating as the tooth relic may be, the wider context is that of colonialism and its effects. Colonial assumptions shaped the reception of thetooth relics; We should ask how they continue to impact the study of Buddhism in the West.

Natasha Hellerteaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, with a research focus on Buddhism and Chinese religion. Her current project is a study of how Taiwanese Buddhist picture books innovate within religious tradition

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