The Sacred Tooth of Buddha

George L. Austin. 1873

THE Portuguese historian, Diego de Couto, after describing the siege and reduction of Jaffna, in 1560, by the viceroy, Don Constantine de Braganza, proceeds as follows:

"Among 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 regard as the most sacred of all objects of adoration. The viceroy was immediately made aware that its value was in estimable, as the natives would be sure to offer vast sums to redeem it. They believed it to be the tooth of their great saint Buddha. This Buddha, so runs their legend, after visiting Lanka, travelled over Pegu and the adjacent countries, converting the heathen, and working miracles; and, death approaching, he wrenched this tooth from its socket, and sent it to Lanka, as the greatest of relics. So highly was it venerated by the Sinhala and by all the people of Pegu, that they esteemed it above all other treasures."

The most remarkable object of interest to the European traveller, who finds himself at Kandy, in Ceylon, is, undoubtedly, the dalada, asserted to be the "sacred tooth" of Buddha, which, for so many years, nay, centuries, has commanded the unreasoning homage of millions of devotees. The fate of this renowned relic is so remarkable, and its destruction is related with so much particularity by the annalists of the period, that no historical doubt can be entertained, even were internal evidence wanting, that the tooth now exhibited at Kandy is a spurious and modern substitute for the original, destroyed in 1560.

The tradition handed down from generation to generation may bear brief repetition. After the funeral-rites of Gotama Buddha had been performed at Kusinara, B. C. 543, his "left canine tooth" was carried to Dantapura, the capital of Kalinga, where it was preserved for eight hundred years. The King of Kalinga, in the reign of Mahasen, being on the point of engaging in a doubtful conflict, directed, in the event of defeat, that the sacred relic should be conveyed to Lanka, whither it was accordingly taken, as described in full in the "Mahawanso," the renowned metrical chronicle of the Sinhala.

In A. D. 1315, it was captured by the Malabars, and was carried back to Southern India; I but, by the prowess of Prakrama Bahu III., it was recaptured and returned to Pollonarua. From this date began and continued the troublesome times which followed the advent of the Portuguese in Lanka. The sacred tooth was changed about from place to place; until, at length, after wars and rumors of wars had weakened the strength and courage of the Sinhala, and had compelled them, as a last resort, to assemble at Jaffna, it finally fell into the possession of the Portuguese, at the fall of that city in 1560.

When the King of Pegu learned that the sacred tooth had fallen into the hands of Don Constantine, he sent an embassy to the latter to tender as a ransom four hundred thousand crusadoes (about two hundred thousand dollars in gold), with offers of his alliance and services in many capacities, and an engagement to provision the Portuguese fort at Malacca as often as it should be required of him. The generous offer might have been accepted but for the interposition of the arch bishop, who resisted it as an encouragement to idolatry. The viceroy shared his opinion; the offer was spurned, the "tooth was placed in a mortar by the archbishop in presence of the court, and reduced to powder and burned, its ashes being scattered over the sea."

And now follows the strangest part of the delusion. At the birth of Brama, King of Pegu, the astrologers who cast his nativity predicted that he should marry a daughter of the King of Lanka, who was to have such and such marks and features, and certain proportions of limbs and figure. Brama, desirous to fulfil the prediction, sent ambassadors to Don Juan, King of Kotte, to beseech the daughter of the latter in marriage. Don Juan, unfortunately, had no offspring; but his chamberlain, a crafty fellow, suggested the substitution of his own daughter, and added impiety to fraud by feigning to the Peguan envoys that he still held, in secret, the genuine dalada, falsely supposed to have been destroyed by the Christians at Goa.

The ambassador and the talapoens evinced their delight on this intelligence, and be sought the chamberlain for permission to see it. He consented reluctantly, and, first obliging them to disguise themselves, he conducted them, by night, to his residence, and there exhibited the tooth in its shrine, resting on an altar, surrounded by perfumes and lights. At the sight they prostrated themselves on the ground, and spent the greater part of the night in ceremonies and superstitious devotion.

Suffice it to say that the girl and the sacred tooth were sent to Brama, by whom they were received with great magnificence and splendor.

After a while, the King of Kandy, on learning the deception which had been perpetrated by his cousin of Kotte, apprised the Peguan sovereign of the imposture; and, to redress it, he offered him his own daughter in marriage, and proposed as her dowry the veritable tooth. Brama, says Faria-y-Souza, the unscrupulous author of the "Asia Portuguesa," "gave ear to the ambassadors, but not to their information; and thus had Don Constantine de Braganza sold the tooth, as he was apprised there had not been two set up to be adored by so many people."

The incidents of this narrative are too minute, and their credibility is established by too many contemporary and concurrent authorities, to admit of any doubt that the authenticity of the tooth now preserved in the Malagawa, at Kandy, is no higher than its antiquity, and that the supposed relic is a clumsy substitute, manufactured by the King of Kandy, in 1566, to replace the original dalada destroyed by the Portuguese in 1560.

It remains only to give a description of the shrine. The apartment in which the false relic is deposited is in the inmost recess of the vihara, or temple, a small chamber the sanctum sanctorum - without windows, in which the air is stiflingly hot and heavy with the perfume of flowers. The frames of the doors are inlaid with carved ivory, and on a massive silver table stands the bell shaped carandua, the shrine, which encloses the relic, incrusted with gems, and festooned with jewelled chains.

The outer case contains a number of others, similarly wrought, but diminishing in size, till on removing the inner one a golden lotus is disclosed, in the centre of which reposes the mysterious tooth.

The internal evidence against the genuineness of the tooth is this: The tooth of Buddha was probably human, both as regarded its-size and appearance; whereas the one now exhibited, on sacred days, is nothing but a piece of discolored ivory, two inches long, one and a quarter in diameter.1

Its popular acceptance, notwithstanding this anomalous shape; may probably be accounted for by the familiarity of the Kandyans, under their later kings, with the forms of some of the Hindoo deities, among whom Vishnu and Kali are occasionally depicted with similarly projecting canines. However, we are inclined to believe that the teeth of the Buddha were not unlike those of his descendants, and that these latter are laboring under one of the most singular of the world's delusions.

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: The Sacred Tooth of Buddha
Author:George L. Austin
Journal: Appletons' Journal.
Print: Vol. IX, No. 219 - 31 May 1873, - Pages 722 723
Publisher: D. Appleton and Company. New York.

Mr Rhys Davids writes ``Jaffna is an outlying and unimportant part of the lankan Kingdom, not often under the poser of the Sinhala monarchs, and for sometime before this it had been ruled by a petty chieftain ; there is no mention of the tooth brought by Dantakumara-having been taken there,-an event so unlikely and of such importance that it would certainly be mentioned had it really occured. We have every reason to believe, therefore that the very tooth referred to by Sir CoomaraSwami is preserved to this day in Kandy''(The Academy, Sept 1874).

Official Website of the Dalada Maligva

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

See also Tale of a Tooth by Therese Yelverton, 1873, which has a description of the Kandy Perahara and some of the Mythology associated with the 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, Cotta to Kotte and Singalese to Sinhala.
(1) The dimensions given are probably of the innermost ivory casket and not of the Dalada itself which may never have been exposed in recent history.

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