The Tooth Relic: symbol of royal authority
In ancient East Indian Buddhist states, claimants to the throne made
all attempts to take possession of the Tooth Relic during times of
internal wars, in order to legitimize their authority and rule.
According to the Dathuvamsa it was such an internal war which
contributed to the dispatch of the left eye-tooth of the Buddha or the
Tooth Relic by King Guhasiva of Kalinga through Prince Dantha and
Princess Hemamala to Sri Lanka during the reign of Srimeghavanna
(301-328). Sri Lanka was selected as a safe haven because this island
was the sanctuary of Buddhism during this era.
Srimeghavanna deposited the Tooth Relic in a building called
Dhammacakka and it was the first Temple of the Tooth in the island. The
Mahavamsa records that several kings such as Dhatusena (455-473) and
Aggabodhi I (571-604) deposited the relic in golden reliquaries and made
improvements to the Temple of the Tooth which stood in the royal
Sri Dalada Maligawa
The Chinese monk, Fa-Hsien who studied scriptures at Anuradhapura for
two years between 411-413 A.D describes the Tooth Relic festival
conducted during his time. Ten days prior to the festival a man seated
on a grandly caparisoned elephant went round beating a large drum and
announced that the roads of the procession should be cleaned and
improved. Ten days after, the Tooth Relic was brought to the Abhayagiri
monastery in a procession.
According to the seventh century Chinese traveller Hieun-Tsang, Danta
dhatughara or the Tooth Relic chamber at Anuradhapura was an exquisite
building of very great religious importance. It was not attached to a
monastery but was near the King’s palace.
After the capital was shifted to Polonnaruva, its first Sinhala King
Vijayabahu I (1070-1110) constructed the building called Atadage and
deposited the Tooth Relic in this building.
The Mahavamsa states that Vijayabahu I celebrated throughout his
reign a great festival of the relic. When Parakramabahu I established
himself as king at Polonnaruva in 1153 A.D he had to wage a war against
princess Sugala of Rohana to obtain the Tooth Relic because the
possession of the Tooth Relic was considered absolutely necessary for
the legitimation of royal authority. Once the relic was secured he
constructed a new building to house the relic.
In some of his inscriptions Nissankamalla (1187-1196) also claims to
have built a Tooth Relic temple at Polonnaruwa. The Mahavamsa
corroborates this claim when it states that, immediately after his
accession, Nissankamalla built a splendid relic temple. According to the
Pujavaliya it was built in 60 days but no further details are given by
this text. This has been identified as now ruined edifice Hatadage.
When Magha occupied Polonnaruwa in 1215 A.D and persecuted Buddhists
and destroyed Buddhist establishments, the bhikkhus took the Tooth Relic
to Kotmale in the Central hills and hid it for protection. Vijayabahu
III (1232-1236) brought it to his new capital Dambadeniya, but due to
the threats posed by invaders, built a temple at Beligala to keep the
Tooth Relic in safe custody. It was Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) who
brought the relic to Dambadeniya and housed it in a temple near the
palace. He also conducted festivals and processions in honour of the
Tooth Relic repeatedly.
With the shifting of the capital to Yapahuwa, a Temple of the Tooth
was built there but after eleven years, during an era of invasions, the
relic was forcibly taken over by the Aryacakravarti of Jaffna and handed
it over to the South Indian Pandyan King. Later on Parakramabahu III
(1287-1293) went to the Pandyan kingdom befriended its ruler and brought
the Tooth Relic to Yapahuwa.
When the capital was shifted to Kurunegala in 1293, Gampola in 1341
and Kotte in 1396 successive kings housed the Tooth Relic in exquisitely
constructed temples located near the palace.
A substantial number of literary works datable to the reign of
Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467) of Kotte refer to the splendour of the
Temple of the Tooth and festivities associated with the Tooth Relic
during his reign. According to them, the Temple of the Tooth was a
three-storied building in the form of a conical crown built of stone
with finely carved granite pillars. It had a golden tiara (rankota) and
inside the temple was decorated with paintings.
It was the centre of ritual in the city of Kotte. The Tooth Relic was
kept in the innermost casket of four golden caskets of decreasing size.
Rituals were performed at the Temple of the Tooth thrice a day to the
tune of drums and other music. The Gira Sandesaya refers to fine music
played at the Temple of the Tooth which could be heard even outside the
Subsequently during Don Juan Dharmapala’s nominal rule in Kotte the
Tooth Relic was taken out of the city and was hidden by the bhikkhus in
Delgamuwa temple in the Ratnapura District.
The first king of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya brought the Tooth Relic
from Delgamuwa to Kandy and housed it in a two-storied temple near the
palace. Later he improved the Temple of the Tooth and made it a
three-storied complex. Until the present, this complex had been improved
and renovated by successive rulers both in the pre-independence and
As seen earlier, from the time of Srimeghavanna there had been
processions (Perahara) conducted in honour of the Tooth Relic
The Asela festival procession as it is conducted today combining the
processions of the four devalas had its origins in the reign of Kirti
Sri Rajasinghe. It was the chief priest (sangharaja) Velivita
Saranankara who advised Kirti Sri Rajasinghe to conduct a gigantic and
elaborate procession in honour of the Tooth Relic.