The Dalada at Kandy

Tale of a Tooth, by Therese Yelverton, 1873

THERE is an old nursery rhyme which says, "We never know its what great things from little things may rise," and if we trace the history of some little things and consider their influence upon the great things of the world, we can easily verify the truth of the adage. A tooth, for instance, is an infinitesimal portion of a man; yet a' tooth has figured in the lives of some very ancient kings; influenced - nay, controlled - their history, and played its part in of the longest dynasties on record. I speak of the tooth of Guatama Buddha, which is considered by some fifty millions of people to be the most sacred and heavenly object left upon the terrestrial globe. His tooth is certainly the oldest in the annals of time, for it dates its existence from six centuries before Christ.

The tale of this tooth is a romance of history as marvelous as the story of the great Kohinoor diamond, or the Marie Antoinette necklace, yet far surpassing these in antiquity, episodes, and influence, for the latter had their intrinsic value to aid them, being always convertible into hard cash-an immense advantage to romance now-a-days, for, as the modern world wags, "£. s. d." is the great talisman. But this ivory derives sole value from its repute of being the tooth, the eye-tooth, of one of the greatest men ever defied - men who have sent their names ringing down to ages and ages, and influenced mankind with their special theories from generation to generation.

The precious ivory is now enshrined with much religious zeal in a temple at Kandy, the late capital of Lanka. That one famous Ceylon - the Taprobane of the Greeks, Serendib of the Arabian Nights -sleeping in the Indian Ocean, south east of the peninsula of Hindostan, from which it is only separated by the Straits of Manaar, sometimes called "Adam's Bridge," as he is reputed to have passed over to the Island of Lanka dry-shod, upon rocks, when driven from Paradise its by the flaming sword, and settled upon the great mountain which bears his name.

The sun was just setting over Kandy, as we reached it. We had come from Point de Galle, the stopping-place of most China-bound steamers. Visitors to the far East are usually contented with a drive on shore at Galle, and except officials and planters few Europeans travel in the interior of Lanka. The sun was setting as only a tropical sun would dare to set, in splashes of purple, green, amber, and crimson, which described on paper may seem to denote very bad taste on the part of the sun, but in reality was a gorgeous spectacle. The flowery hills around Kandy blushed a pale rose-tint, as though they were not quite satisfied to reflect any of the deeper colors; but the mountains, rearing their heads eight thousand feet, plunged their purple peaks into the azure sky.

Few people would venture to dispute the beauty of Kandy at any time; but, glowing with the brilliant sunset lights, it must win all hearts not utterly callous to beauty. At present, it may be described as a congregation of handsome objects rather than as a city. In the centre is a large artificial lake-one of the famous tanks or reservoirs constructed at various parts of the island, about two thousand years ago, to irrigate the land, forming the glory of king and kingdom. Reflected in its waters stands the Buddhist temple, with numberless colonnades and towers, under which reposes the great Dalada, the Tooth of Buddha; enshrined in temples, and altars, arid reliquaires, of marble, ivory, ebony, silver, and gold; set with precious stones-sapphires, pearls, rubies, topazes-for which the island is renowned. Around the reservoir is a raised wall and promenade, shadowed by tamarind-trees, and the male cotton with its cherry-lipped flowers, which falling carpet the earth in a zone of pinky leaflets. Below is a carriage-drive around the lake, four miles in circumference. On the opposite side is the modern hotel, with its wide verandah covered with creepers of every hue, and tempting long chairs. A little farther on is an old Dutch church, which in its ugly simplicity is a good foil to the graceful and elaborate pagoda opposite; it seems to be sneering in a quiet and phlegmatic way at all the vainglorious display of form and color which transfuse oriental scenery. A long, narrow, picturesque Chinese street forms the business portion of the town, and all around upon the green hills are the planters' bungalows, climbing higher and higher up the mountains, peeping out from a perfect sea of coffee-trees, whose white blossoms exhale a perfume which hangs as a canopy over the whole country, and whose scarlet berries, when the coffee is ripe, gladden the dark green of the landscape.

To return to the temple, now the resting-place of the ivory whose history I am attempting to write. It is the core or nucleus of a vast establishment of Buddhist priests, who lift their voices in praise, morning, noon, and night, with an accompaniment of drums, tom-toms, and big gongs. There is also a large stable of elephants and horses, and serving-men, to officiate upon grand occasions, when the tooth goes abroad and is exhibited to the faithful. This, however, it very rarely does, for its guardians understand thoroughly that too much familiarity breeds contempt, and fifty years sometimes elapse between its appearances in public.

King Kriti Sri had been the last monarch to worship it in company with his subjects, so that very few persons in the island had actually seen it, though they earnestly believed in the potency of the relic, and that the sight alone would confer prosperity upon the beholder. Great preparations were, therefore, made in the city of Kandy; triumphal arches erected, and whole trees transplanted to form bowers, altars, and avenues for the procession to halt in or pass through. Every creature - man, woman, or child - that could use its own feet, came from all parts of the island to witness the exposition and partake in the consequent benefits, the Sinhala consider that one divine benefit is enough for one life, therefore this festival is not often repeated.

Formerly the high priest and the king were the officials at the ceremony; but since the island and the tooth have fallen into British hands, of course the Governor stands in lieu of the Queen. He and the high priest, with attendant priests, private secretaries, and other assistants, etc., enter the sanctum sanctorum where the singularly long tooth dwells. With the aid of a host of attendants, the various tabernacles, pagodas, and altars are removed, when the sumptuous caskets of gold and jewels are loosed. The tooth then goes into its out-door garment, a pavilion of solid silver with silver ornamented pillars, which covers the bawsewige, a small octagonal cupola composed of burnished gold, rows of blue sapphires, and rubies. The Dalada reposes in another gold casket, on a velvet cushion fringed with precious pearls, such as would make the fortune of a royal princess. This paraphernalia is placed on the back of a most majestic elephant, richly caparisoned in crimson velvet with gold embroidery. This gentleman, like many high officials, has a complete sinecure, for his exclusive duty is to carry the Dalada twice or thrice in his life, for which performance he lives in clover all the rest of his existence, which is longer than that of a man. Upon the occasion of his public appearance he is attended by his mahouts and scores of lackeys, anyone of whom would hypothecate his head for a situation equal to that of the beast. All the high officials, clerical, civil, and military-the two latter British-join in the procession.

When the elephant carrying the Dalada appears at the gate of the temple, a long double line of elephants kneel down to receive him, while the nobles, priests, and populace bend their bodies at a right angle, lifting their arms above their heads, and joining their fingers. They raise a shout of triumph appalling in its power and vehemence, which is caught up by the multitude, and far and wide from every throat and voice it spreads over the whole city-one mighty, solemn peal of adoration. Fete Dieu in France, the " Holy Cross in Rome? What is our own impassioned embrace of a faded photograph, not seen for years, which rouses the yearning tear? We do not all of us understand our own emotions-can we fathom those of the Sinhala?>

The elephant, bearing the sacred Dalada, and followed by the whole retinue -civilized, savage, sacred and profane, priest and parson (no doubt the British chaplain would have to be present, politically, of course), richly-robed Sinhala nobles, unclad Malabars, Tamuls, and Madrasmen-proceeds through the leafy avenues made for him, trampling with dignified tread the world of flowers spread for the feet which bear the sacred load, until it reaches the altar or reposoir, into which it is lifted by the ancient Adikar. Then the British governor, holding back the velvet curtain, displays the relic to the ravished multitude, whose hosannas reach the echoes of the purple mountains, and swim along the valley, waking the nightingales that pipe their exultant song to the heart of every dell.

All that can be effected by means of evergreens and flowers in our own country falls far short in comparison with what is done in the East. The graceful palm-leaves, and waving bananas - the luscious magnolias, gorgeous sun flowers and shoe-blossoms, and the wonderful decorative taste possessed in such an extraordinary degree by savage over civilized people-the glowing light, and soothing perfume - the yellow-robed monks, and the rich dresses of the nobles - the grand background of purple mountains, and the inner amphitheatre of hills covered with green coffee-the quaint old temple, and the mirror-like lake-produce a combination of scenic effect unparalleled under our duller sky.

The Dalada, or Sacred Tooth, is a piece of discolored ivory, over an inch in length, and broad in proportion. The owner must have measured at least from seven to eight feet in height, to have grown such a tooth; and it was declared by the Portuguese, when they conquered the country, to be an ape's tooth. The history of this wonder-working incisor, is as follows: The body of Guatama Buddha was burned, according to the Indian custom, but before its entire destruction on the funeral pyre a priest rushed forward and rescued the eye-tooth from the flames. It was at once venerated as miraculous.

The tooth had been kept in great state in a city called Dantapoora (from danta, tooth, and poora, city), and the King Kalinga, neglecting Vishnu and Siva, worshiped only the tooth; for which he was called to account by another king, Pandoowai, the chief sovereign of all India, who sent forth a mandate, and issued orders to his generals and his armies to invade that country and stop the idolatry-in the name of the true God to kill and slay, and give no quarter, but to bring back the heretic king and the wretched bit of human bone he was adoring day and night. The great general marched forth, fought and conquered, captured the Dalada and the devotee, and reported them to his master. And now commenced the trials of the tooth. The sovereign was resolved to go to extremities, and decided to burn up the piece of bone, and have an end of it. He, therefore, had prepared in the yard of his palace a pit filled with glowing embers, into which the Dalada was cast. In the usual course of chemical action, it would have been speedily reduced to powder; but the legend of this relic, like the tales concerning other miraculous objects, proceeds quite differently. The tooth rose from the flames unscathed, emitting from itself a radiance which ascended to the heavens and illumined the universe, or at least as much of it as the writer of that period was acquainted with. Having thus displayed itself fire-proof and non-combustible, the king, being disgusted at the open defiance of his power, forth with ordered the tooth to be buried deep in the earth and trodden down by elephants; but, spurning the clay above it, it sprang up like the grain sowed by the planter on a lotus-leaf, the emblem of the spouse of the mother of Buddha, who is reported to have conceived as a virgin. Still the king was not satisfied. He naturally imagined some fraud had been practiced, and ordered the tooth to be placed on an anvil. The ponderous hammer was raised to crush it, but the tooth (it must surely have been a wisdom tooth) sagely imbedded itself in the iron, and the hammer fell harmlessly upon it. The priestly enemies then declared that the fraud consisted not in the relic itself, which, no doubt, was part of the god Vishnu, but in the assertion that it was Guatama's. To prove this, the king ordered them to petition that worthy to release his own tooth from the iron shackles into which he had put it. The priests commenced a series of incantations and supplications, enough to move any god; but the obstinate tooth, like so many of its successors (as dentists will vouch for), refused to be extracted. The king, who appears to have been a practical,logical man, said, "Now you priests have failed, let the Buddhists try" - whereupon great offerings were made to the Dalada, and all the saintly deeds and holy acts of Buddha recounted. These exertions were rewarded by the tooth getting up and showing itself again. The king, delighted, placed it in a gold goblet, when it was graciously pleased to float on the water. These miracles confirmed the wavering, and converted the king, though not the priests. Pandoowai, however, discarded the heretics, and loaded the vihares (temples) with treasure. He abdicated from the throne, and retired to a Buddhist monastery, where he died in what we should denominate the odor of sanctity. He entreated Buddha's forgiveness for his doubts; not failing judiciously to point out that his sins had, after all, a beneficial result, as proving the authenticity of the relic-that all is well that ends well-and hinted at a dogma, since termed Jesuitical, that evil might be committed that good may result. Here he equivocated a little with Buddha, suggesting that if he had not believed in the happy result, he (King Pandoowai) would never have permitted the indignity.

The tooth, after this triumph, went back to Dantapoora, to the keeping of Goohasina. In a short time, King Qodaini came to worship at the shrine of the Dalada, and made rich offerings. He also adored at another shrine - that of the fair Ranawale, the King's daughter, whom he married. But scarcely had they outlived that one blissful period of human existence, the "honey moon," when the wicked nephews of Pandoowai (why are nephews always wicked?) waged war against the tooth, and came down upon the city of Dantapoora to sack and otherwise destroy it. Now, the happy pair were still stanch adherents of the tooth, and, fearful that even ivory could not resist such an army, they disguised themselves in the garb of the despised and inimical priest hood, and carried the treasure away to the sea-coast, where they buried it in the sand. But as the war waged fiercer, Ranawale, with true woman's wit, wove it into her long, luxuriant tresses, and, drawing near to the ships, awaited the result of the battle then raging around the doomed city of Dantapoora. A red flag was to be the signal of defeat and despair, when the fair guardian of the relic was to embark and proceed to Lanka, which island had been foretold as the future home of the Dalada. Thus, when the setting sun cast his last lurid beams upon the bloody signal, and the whole eastern heaven blushed in shame, the devout heroine entered the ship and passed with her sacred burden to the friendly shores of Lanka, where she was received by the king with royal honors. Every mark of distinction was heaped upon her head, and especially upon her hair, which had performed such a wonderful service.

History does not say so, but I have a shrewd idea that the king married her; her spouse (Oodaini) having been killed in the battle. Not that this fact was material, for a Sinhala woman has from time immemorial been allowed to take two or more husbands. The king also dedicated the island to the Dalada, and built for it the richest of shrines. Since that time, A. D. 309, it has shared the fate of the Sinhala, and under gone the vicissitudes of that country; sometimes in triumphing over a million of heads bowed in worship or reverence they clasp their hands and kneel -sometimes wandering from place to place for safer keeping and to escape the ferocious onslaught of the Malabar invasion; but wherever its sacred presence beamed, it influenced the destinies of the country, and its history forms a large portion of Sinhala chronicles. The people place infinite confidence in its power to procure peace and prosperity for the nation with whom it dwells. The Portuguese knowing this, sought and obtained possession of it by force, and assert that they ground it up in a mortar and publicly burnt it as an idol and false god; that the Adikar Buddhist priests offered for its redemption three hundred thousand ducats, which were refused by Constantine de Braganza, the Portuguese leader. Nevertheless, another tooth is said to have been manufactured so closely resembling the Dalada, that the priests were deceived and accepted it.The Sinhala, however, declare that the real Buddha dental was carefully hidden away, and that Constantine de Braganza was deceived by an ape's tooth, palmed off upon him, which he burned. The latter story is much more probable than the former. This was in the sixteenth century.

In 1815, when the British became rulers of the island, they also became guardians of the sacred Dalada, which was held as a sort of insignia of royalty, like the crown jewels or regalia. In the rebellion in 1817, the first act of the Sinhala was to steal the tooth. A priest, one of the guardians of the sanctuary, surreptitiously conveyed it and himself away to the mountains, where he wandered unsuspected. The people, aware of this, considered their triumph over their new lords and masters as a foregone conclusion. But this becoming known, a strict search was made, and the priest was eventually taken with the tooth upon him-his bald pate affording no concealment like the locks of the fair Ranawale. The sacred ivory was restored to its former shrine and temple in Kandy. This being made public, the effect was magical on the people, who became convinced that the guardians and possessors of the tooth must triumph, and that it was the will of Buddha that the British should rule over Ceylon. When peace and tranquillity was restored, the guardianship of the tooth was divided between the governor of the island and the high priest, and the reliquaire was so constructed that it required two keys to open it.

In 1828 the Dalada was publicly exhibited for the benefit and adoration of the faithful; and the Queen of England, sitting high upon her Protestant throne in the far-advanced nineteenth century, is virtually the showman to a deluded multitude, of a very large-sized tooth-much too monstrous for any human mouth, unless that of a giant-and which they reverence as the actual person of the Deity!

Original text courtesy of the
University of Michigan Digital Library Collections - Making of America
Reformated Text in HTML put Online at with their Permission.

Title: Tale of a Tooth
Author: Therese Yelverton,
Journal:The Overland Monthly
Print: Vol. XI, No. 5, November 1873. Pages 434 435 436 437 438 439
Publisher:John H. Carmany: San Francisco.

Official Website of the Dalada Maligva.

Rebel attack unveils historic art - BBC News 2001 February 7th

See Also
The Sacred Tooth of Buddha by George L. Austin. 1873, which has more storys associated with Dalada.

These are however travalogues by American tourists. I recomend reading the more complete and properly referenced Memoir of the history of the Tooth-Relic of Ceylon by J. Gerson Da Cunha was published in 1875, by W. Thacker & Co., London; and was reprinted in 1996, by AES, New Delhi. Maybe someday I should OCR those 34 pages.

Editors Note: Text Proof read by Kavan although more OCR and reformating errors, probably still remain. I have modernized some words to PC English, such as changing Ceylon into Lanka, and Cingalese to Sinhala, and commented out some of the Christian commentary.

Please also see notes on other interesting articles like this that have been put online in the Digital Library Collections of MoA.