“The Buddha’s Tooth: Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic” by John S Strong


After the Buddha died or, as believers hold, attained Mahaparinirvana, the remains of his body—tooth, hair, bones—were reportedly disseminated to different Buddhist stupas in India. These relics have been understood to be at the centre of various miracles and legends since then and have also been  highly coveted objects. Rulers of various kingdoms have wanted to get hold of these relics in their bid to legitimate their sovereignty with the Buddha’s blessings. As a result, each relic has interesting stories around its existence—about being lost, stolen, refound, and even destroyed. John Strong’s The Buddha’s Tooth: Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic is a “storical” account of the Buddha’s tooth: one that seems to have been destroyed by the Portuguese in 16th century and another that is noted to have been at the center of British rule of Sri Lanka in the 19th century in part two. Strong writes an in-depth analysis of the destruction of the former—in the fascinating first half of the book—by looking at all mediaeval and premodern European sources. His account is very likely to give mythological thrillers a run for their money!


The Buddha’s Tooth: Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic, John S Strong (Unversity of Chicago Press, October 2021)
The Buddha’s Tooth: Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic, John S Strong (University of Chicago Press, October 2021)

Various missionaries, soldiers, colonial officials, traders, travelers and the like from the 16th to 18th centuries wrote about the tooth. Strong studies fourteen of these German, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and French sources that mention the tooth and points out that these narratives agree on the basic points that the Portuguese captured the tooth and brought it to Goa, that a number of neighboring kingdoms offered to ransom the tooth, and that the Portuguese destroyed the tooth anyway as an act of decrying idolatry. However, these sources do not agree on several elements such as where the tooth was found (some say it was found in Jaffna in the north, others trace it to Adam’s Peak in Central Sri Lanka) and whose tooth it was (some say it was the tooth of a monkey, others say it was that of a white monkey, some specify that it was the tooth of Hanuman, the monkey-god of the Ramayana fame, and some argue that it was the Buddha’s). The stories are fascinating in that they talk about Europe’s discovery of and engagement with Buddhism in the pre-modern times. Instead of focusing on abstract doctrines and texts, Strong argues, readers and scholars must focus on concrete objects to arrive at an understanding “of how ‘Buddhism’ entered the Western imaginaire”. One source—Diogo Do Couto’s Da Asia (1616)—is worth quoting here to look at one flavor of European understanding:


From their principle temple, they (the Portuguese) brought to the Viceroy an enchased tooth which was commonly said to be that of a monkey, [but] which was held by those heathens to be their most sacred object of worship. They immediately advised the Viceroy of this, and they assured him that it was the greatest treasure they could have gotten, because he could receive a large sum of gold for it. Those heathens maintained that this tooth was that of their Budao [Buddha]… In his legend, they relate that this Budao, after leaving Ceylon, traveled to parts of Pegu, andin all those realms, converted heathens and performed miracles. And when he came to die, he wrenched this tooth from his mouth, and sent it to Ceylon as a very great relic of his. And thus it was considered so great among them, and among all the heathens of the principalities of Pegu, that there was nothing that they valued more highly.


Another source is Manuel Faria e Souza’s Asia Portuguesa (1674). It refers to a white monkey’s tooth:


In the treasure taken from the king of Jaffna, whom we recently vanquished by our arms, there was an idol celebrated in the whole of Asia. It was so coveted by all of the princes [in the region]  that some of them had sought to get imprints of it in precious materials such as amber. In particular, the King of Pegu, every year, sent his ambassadors with rich gifts for that monarch, in the hopes that the wold consent to an impression of the idol being taken, since he could not obtain the original. These copies were re-presentations of that idol and were adored as much as it. It was a white monkey’s tooth.


Very patiently unpacking such snippets from diverse sources, Strong articulates different traditions around the tooth, and even the tradition of traditions themselves—for the pre-Portuguese Pali and Sinhalese texts too mention the pilfering and return of the tooth, apart from the details of its location. The legends also involve Chinese interest: Faxian mentions its annual ritual procession; Ming Yuan, the Chinese pilgrim is said to have attempted to steal it around the 11th century; and even Zheng He is said to have taken it away in one of his naval expeditions in the 15th century (something that contemporary Chinese accounts don’t mention at all). The legends multiply. Navigating these slippery, labyrinthine traditions requires a genius. Strong balances the act of delving into these narratives with an analysis of each source by locating it in the larger picture of diverse “storical” traditions and colonial politics:


Long before the Portuguese, attempts had already been made to destroy the tooth. Indeed, the various ways … in which the “heretics” in India try to destroy the relic—by smashing, burning, submerging, and so on—are remarkably similar to the actions of the Portuguese, with the difference that the latter are said to succeed while the former do not. Finally, the tooth was a potent symbol of legitimacy not only for monarchs, whose personal inclinations were Buddhistic, but also for those who might be labeled as Hindus. The cult of the tooth was as syncretistic as the culture of the times.


Strong is at his most brilliant when he historicizes the destruction of the tooth:


Xavier died at the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which was formulating Roman Catholic responses to the rise of Protestantism. Among these was a careful reassertion of the sanctity of relics in the face of attacks on them by figures such as Martin Bucer (1491-1551) adn John Calvin (1509-1564). In this context, the body of Francis Xavier, miraculously incorrupt, was seen, especially in Jesuit circles, as a kind of showpiece of a “good” and “proper” relic, which could be contrasted with the dead bodies of non-Catholics … Such messages were clear: as concretely marked by the relics of its saints, Catholicism was pure and did not decay; other religions were not and did. In this context alone, the citizens of Goa must have been struck by the contrast between the body of their great saint Xavier and the tooth of the Gentiles, especially when the latter, upon burning, emitted a foul odor, as several of our sources testify.


The second half of the book is dedicated to the way the British dealt with another tooth—the relic at the famous Glorious Tooth Temple in 19th-century Kandy. In this avatar, the tooth becomes a delicate matter to approach and even an occasion to establish some sort of respect for the native traditions. After the 1815 Kandyan War, the British stayed invested in reinstating the relic with all protocol-oriented respect, a practice that remained in   British consciousness when Queen Elizabeth visited the temple in 1950s (the dilemma was whether the Queen should remove her shoes when visiting the temple!) and Prince Charles’s visit in 2013.

Strong’s history of the tooth is a study of “one continuous saga of stories reflective of changing European mindsets”. While the Portuguese ridiculed the tooth as a symbol of ignorance of the idolaters, and even as a “tooth of the Devil”, the British wanted it to be ceremoniously reinstated in their attempts to emerge as rulers who did not want to interfere with religious affairs of the natives. Strong writes:


The stories and their details, however, also reflect the cultural, religious, and historical contexts in which they are set… The destruction of the tooth by the Portuguese, for instance, is informed by the fervent Catholicism of their time as well as the corrupt practices of their empire. It is surely no coincidence that the tooth was burned in Goa just as the Portuguese Inquisition was being introduced there, and but a few years after the full-body relic of Saint Francis Xavier was enshrined there. The stories about its destruction and its identification, however, also reflect the political concerns of a growing Portuguese Empire. Similarly, the British dealings with the tooth in Kandy, as we shall see, are marked by their own ongoing worldwide quest for empire, but also by an ideological tension between missionary-inspired Protestantism and an Enlightenment-informed pragmatism.


The Buddha’s Tooth is an insightful book for those interested in world history, mediaeval times, Buddhist Studies, and for those interested in how stories spread and make histories.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.