The temple was badly damaged in 1998 when the LTTE detonated a massive truck bomb outside the entrance, killing over twenty people and reducing the facade to rubble. Restoration work was swift and thorough, however, and there’s little visible evidence left of the attack, although crash barriers now prevent vehicular access to the temple, and all visitors have to pass through stringent security checks.
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The Buddha’s Tooth
The Buddha’s Tooth
Legend has it that when the Buddha was cremated in 543 BC at Kushinagar in North India, various parts of his remains were rescued from the fire, including one of his teeth. In the fourth century AD, as Buddhism was declining in India in the face of a Hindu revival, the Tooth was smuggled into Sri Lanka, hidden (according to legend) in the hair of an Orissan princess. It was first taken to Anuradhapura, then to Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa. In 1284, an invading Pandyan army from South India captured the Tooth and took it briefly back to India, until it was reclaimed by Parakramabahu III some four years later.
During these turbulent years the Tooth came to assume increasing political importance, being regarded not only as a unique religious relic but also as a symbol of Sri Lankan sovereignty – it was always housed by the Sinhalese kings in their capital of the moment, which explains its rather peripatetic existence. After being reclaimed by Parakramabahu III, it subsequently travelled to Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. In the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese captured what they claimed was the Tooth, taking it back to Goa, where it was pounded to dust, then burnt and cast into the sea (Buddhists claim either that this destroyed Tooth was simply a replica, or that the ashes of the Tooth magically reassembled themselves and flew back to Sri Lanka). The Tooth finally arrived in Kandy in 1592 and was installed in a specially constructed temple next to the palace, later becoming the focus for the mammoth Esala Perahera.
The exact nature and authenticity of the Tooth remains unclear. Bella Sidney Woolf, writing in 1914 when the Tooth was still regularly displayed to the public, described it as “a tooth of discoloured ivory at least three inches long – unlike any human tooth ever known,” unconsciously echoing the sentiments of an earlier Portuguese visitor, a certain de Quezroy, who in 1597 claimed that the Tooth had actually come from a buffalo. Whatever the truth, the Tooth remains an object of supreme devotion for many Sri Lankans. Security concerns mean that it is no longer taken out on parade during the Esala Perahera, though it is put on display in the Temple of the Tooth for a couple of weeks once or twice every decade.
Hares in the moon
Hares in the moon
The paintings of hares in the moon shown on the exterior of the Tooth Relic shrine refer to one of the most famous of the Jataka stories, describing the previous lives of the Buddha before his final incarnation and enlightenment. According to the Jataka story of the Hare in the Moon, the future Buddha was once born as a hare. One day the hare was greeted by an emaciated holy man, who begged him – along with a fox and a monkey, who also happened to be passing – for food. The fox brought a fish, the monkey some fruit, but the hare was unable to find anything for the holy man to eat apart from grass. Having no other way of assuaging the ascetic’s hunger, the hare asked him to light a fire and then leapt into the flames, offering his own body as food. At this moment the holy man revealed himself as the god Indra, placing an image of the hare in the moon to commemorate its self-sacrifice, where it remains to this day.
The Jataka fable may itself be simply a local version of a still more ancient Hindu or Vedic myth – traditions referring to a hare in the moon can be found as far away as China, Central Asia and even Europe, while the story also appears, in slightly modified form, in one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.